Improving Community Health, One Conversation At A Time

Community health workers use personal connections to build trust with local East Africans

East African Community; Community Health Workers

If there's one phrase that defines the work of Fairview’s community health workers, it's “meet the community where they're at."

For Fatma Mohamed and her team at the Cedar-Riverside Health Commons in Minneapolis, that means meeting people geographically and culturally. “My team has a huge responsibility," Fatma says. "They form a cultural bridge, connecting the community to information and resources that lead to better health.” 

What is a Community Health Worker?

Community health workers are health professionals who are also members of the communities they serve. Bilingual and trusted, they use relationships to work the frontlines of public health, doing outreach, education and informal counseling.

Fatma’s team—Fartun Diriye, Nagiba Jibril and Barlin Aden—is a consistent physical presence in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. They can be found in communal areas around The Cedars apartment buildings, the Brian Coyle Community Center, area malls—anywhere the community congregates. They spend their time communicating, sometimes person to person, sometimes in small groups, about neighborhood events focused on health.

In East African culture, posters, flyers and brochures don't carry the authority of a personal connection. “Important information is relayed verbally through a trusted person,” Fatma explains.

Fairview collaborates with community organizations to hold cooking classes, exercise programs and seminars on eating healthy on a budget. Members of the metro East African community, such as Osman Ahmed Harare, MD, of the East Africa Project in St. Paul also help. Residents learn about living with chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, and serious conditions like cancer and HIV.

“Our efforts would not be the same without the collaboration of our partner organizations," Fatma says. "It all works together to get people thinking more about their personal health.”

Working across the region

Fairview’s outreach to the East African community is not limited to a single neighborhood. Laila Wardhere works in the south and west suburbs, and performs rounds at Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina.

“Often, the people I interact with think that I am either an interpreter or a social worker,” she says. “I need to explain my role. It’s new for everyone.”

Laila works on making connections with patients and their families, encouraging them to advocate for themselves and their families. “The patients and families feel judged by their accent, appearance or their religion. They feel separate. I try to pull them in and explain that they are a part of the community and have a right to the same care as anyone else.”

Outside the hospital, she partners with members of the local faith community to help her recruit participants for events on topics like health screenings or primary care visits. “Many community members were not raised with regular access to doctors and nurses for preventative medicine,” she says. “They don’t understand why they would see one if they don’t feel sick.”

East metro events are developing as well. Fairview has been reaching out to Somali residents to bring them to events with Woodbury Thrives, a cooperative working to improve health and well-being. The community health team also hosted an east metro interfaith community conversation in 2016 that was co-hosted by the Islamic Society and Christian faith traditions.

“We have so much more work to do,” says Alissa LeRoux Smith, community health outreach manager. “We are always learning how we can be a better partner with this community and support the health of everyone in the metro area.”

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