The Urban League of Portland and the Multnomah County Community Capacitation Center have developed an African and African American Community Health Worker training program called the We Are Health Movement. The 2014 graduates named their class the Divine 25; certified and ready to work, they are moving into the community health field. Photo by Carlos Silva
A quiet revolution is taking place in Multnomah County’s Community Capacitation Center.
Part of the Health Department, the Center and its allies have for the past three years been gathering, training and empowering a core group of African and African American community health workers who are ready to take their place in the expanding health care economy paved by the Affordable Care Act.
Led by a partnership between the Urban League of Portland and the Capacitation Center – literally the word means “building up to capacity” – the historic effort might save lives, create jobs and change the way local communities view their own health.
Part of what is called the “We Are Health Movement,” the effort leverages knowledge and experiences from all corners of the African and African American communities.
The Center has put an estimated 600 community health workers through a more generalized training since 1998, but We Are Health is different in that it is specifically Afrocentric.
“It’s an empowerment-based training rooted in popular education, which we use as a methodology and philosophy,” says staff member Arika Bridgeman-Bunyoli. “We were looking at African-American and African examples of popular education, which is training that's based on the principle that everybody comes in knowing a lot.”
Bunyoli says what sets community health workers apart from the rest of the health care system is that their goal is not just to connect people with services, but to be directly involved and responsive within their community.
“I think that in the African and African-American communities this model is so powerful, because it is helping us look at what affects us, as African-American people, as African people -- as black people -- how we can heal ourselves, and how we can help our community heal itself.”
Part of a larger vision for what community-based health care should be, as researched and outlined by Multnomah County Health Department program manager Noelle Wiggins – with the strong support of Multnomah County over the past 15 years -- the Center’s effort focuses on preventive care: How families and individuals can stay healthier rather than focusing on what to do when people are sick.
In that way it dovetails with President Barack Obama’s underlying vision for the Affordable Care Act, which aims to turn the existing health care model on its head by funding health care that heads off common health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, before they start.
The effort first sprouted at the Urban League of Portland, which launched a project to train five community health workers in 2011; by the time that first group was finished with their training in 2013, the Urban League, the Capacitation Center and the North By Northeast Health Center were pooling resources for a second group training in January of this year.
The Northwest Health Foundation helped out with funding along the way, as did the Kaiser Foundation.
Ty Schwoeffermann, the Urban League’s health equity coordinator, says the idea blossomed when community organizers realized that migrant communities around the state had created effective community health systems with cultural components not seen in more traditional health education settings.
A little digging showed that a similar effort had been made in Northeast Portland back in the 1990s called Power for Health, a partnership between the Capacitation Center, Emmanuel Community Services, Maranatha Church and more. However since that effort, but that no culturally-specific trainings had been held in many years.
Bunyoli – a health worker and fluent Swahili speaker who has worked in development programs in Kenya – says the Capacitation Center’s work is truly historic in weaving together people, knowledge and ideas from across the African Diaspora.
“When we say African African-American – people outside our community think that means the same homogenous group of black people,” she says.
The revived project included the faith community, the traditional African American community, the black LGBT community which is backed by PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays), African immigrants who experience a number of health issues after several years of being in the United States.
They also drew in organizations addressing violence, such as gang outreach and drugs and addictions counselors.
“What was really unique was that when we did the curriculum with the first cohort, they said there are some ways that we could make this more Afrocentric, that we could make this more true to our community,” Bunyoli says. “And so we brought in community health workers from the first cohort to help coach facilitate the second cohort.
Because it is not funded by the state, the Capacitation Center and the Urban League have searched out other nonprofits to help scrape together the funding for building out this cutting-edge health model.
“Even though we are known nationally, we're still not able to get the level of support that we need to do this really deep community work,” Bridgeman says.
For anyone who wants to be trained as Community Health Workers, the county has a training beginning in September 2014. Contact Beth Poteet at 503-314-3136, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The training is expensive for many potential CHWs who do not yet have organizations to sponsor them so if anyone wants to give money to fund some scholarships that would be welcome,” Bunyoli says.
For more information, or to support the Capacitation Center's We Are Health trainings, click here.
For more on the Urban League of Portland’s work, click here.