My day job is Community Outreach and Engagement Manager at UnityPoint Health – Meriter.
In this role, I focus on a number of key areas: community health needs assessments, community benefits, and chronic diseases, including mental health and substance abuse.
For the community health needs assessment, I work in partnership with UW Health as well as SSM Health and Quartz, and we conduct this assessment every three years. Through this assessment, we have identified three key priorities we’ll be working on together.
The first is around saving babies, which means changing disparities around maternal and child health. We are working to decrease the infant/child mortality rate.
One program we’re especially excited about is Harambee Village Doulas. This is a collective of doulas—healthcare professionals who provide support to women throughout pregnancy and delivery—working to address maternal and child health care gaps in Dane County. It’s been rewarding to partner with other Dane County groups to save babies and support a Black-led organization.
Our second focus area is around what we call “community benefits,” which is about supporting organizations in the community that are working to enhance the lives of people of color.
In this area, we’ll focus on our community impact, which is done through community service, community investments such as resources, staff hours and financial commitments to community organizations that are primarily led by People of Color. We want to make sure we capture those hours and understand our impact.
The last focus area is around chronic illnesses including mental health and substance abuse. Part of that is gaining a greater understanding of how mental health, substance abuse and other chronic illnesses disparately affect people of color.
I’ve been involved in community work like this for decades. For 27 years, I focused on helping those with severe mental illness remain in the community, instead of being incarcerated or institutionalized. A big part of what I did was raise attention in the Black community around suicide—it’s long been a topic people don’t talk about.
After that, I moved into policy and advocacy, specifically community engagement around policy issues with a focus on Madison, Milwaukee and Racine.
My current role leverages my work in both mental health and community outreach and has allowed our organization to pivot during the pandemic. We’ve become a critical resource for community-led organizations that focus on the impact of mental health and substance abuse, particularly on people of color, and we’ve seen a huge increase in both areas during COVID.
This past year has been challenging in many ways. But as someone who’s working to address disparity, I’m also hopeful. If nothing else, awareness has been raised. People can no longer say, “I didn’t know.”
COVID has both heightened the disparities and increased awareness of them. We have to be prepared for what we’ll see as our community returns to “normal”—I believe we’ll see increased numbers of people dealing with mental health, substance abuse and homelessness.
Now is the time to start planning for how we’re going to tackle these issues—we can no longer wait for change, we have to create the change we want to see. We need to make critical investments and we need to do more than just hire people to reach our diversity/equity/inclusion goals—we have to support them.
I’m happy to report the organizations I’m working with are willing to put in the work and make the investments—they’re not just talking a good game, they’re being intentional and strategic.
My challenge to anyone who’s reading this? We don’t have the luxury to sit back and do nothing. We can all do something in our little corner of the universe. It doesn’t have to be big, but we each have to start somewhere. Each of us has someone who’s helped us without judgment along our path. Now it’s up to us to do the same.
My most memorable caffeine is the cup of tea my husband makes me every morning—he makes the best tea! It’s our time to sit, be together and drink our tea.
My current caffeine of choice is usually tea.
My favorite place for caffeine is my house.
The person I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with is Michelle Obama.
There are a number of reasons for this. One is because I love the relationship she has with Barack. The authenticity of their marriage reminds me of my own.
Second, I like the way she carries herself. Barack would not have run for president without her support and I don’t think he would have been as great a president without her. Michelle is not just his wife, she’s an accomplished woman in her own right.
I appreciate Michelle’s willingness to talk about mental health. It’s something I’ve been working to get Black women to do for a long time—to get the help they need for the quality of life they want. For Michelle to be so open about her own depression and experiences is remarkable.
And, last, she has two girls and I do too!
World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: There are so many, but here are a few.
During this time, I’d love to get rid of COVID, of course. Every challenging issue we face is made worse by this disease.
Another huge problem is homelessness. You won’t end physical abuse and substance abuse without providing a safe place for people to lay their heads. You can’t expect people to have the quality of life that enables them to work, go to school and contribute to society unless they have a stable home.
Literacy and access to education, particularly among Black youth. Although our education system has its flaws, it’s also the gateway to opportunity. It changes the trajectory of people’s lives and I want people to understand this and help make it a reality for more people.