Pillsbury United Communities makes public health: Conversations with frontline workers
When Awol Windissa describes his work, his vision is broad. “Community health,” he says, “is one way to connect the dots of health, nutrition, chronic conditions, acute illness and the social determinants of health. You cannot talk about housing and abandon work. You can’t talk about mental health and forget about the substance abuse part of the problem.
As director of public health for Pillsbury United Communities, a nonprofit organization with over 140 years of service in Minneapolis, Awol leads a growing team of community health workers who address needs from diabetes education to affordable housing.* Originally founded as a small team under the umbrella of Population Health, the Community Health Impact Area has grown to include its own director, an operations manager, and five full-time community health workers who meet with community members at neighborhood centers in Minneapolis.
Work for well-being
At Community Health’s oldest location, the Brian Coyle Neighborhood Center in Cedar-Riverside, services are provided primarily to Somali and Oromo seniors by Community Health staff who grew up in East African communities. Awol, along with Community Health staff Fowzia Abdullahi, Abdul Sero and Abdiqani Abdi, provide education, support and resources for people in the neighborhood and beyond.
Among the services the team offers are support navigating public benefits such as Social Security and SNAP, help navigating US medical systems, education about managing diabetes and other chronic conditions, and transportation to and from grocery stores or medical appointments.
Fowzia explains the connection between all these services: “What community health means to me is community well-being. . . We are community builders. We are developers. We support with employment. We support with immigration, housing, liaison with doctors, so many things. And it all starts with health. . . when you’re healthy, you can do so much.”
Community health is community strength
What does dealing with this wide variety of issues look like in action? Abdul Sero notes that many of the people he works with are from immigrant and refugee backgrounds and often carry traumatic experiences with them. In response, he defines his work by saying that “community health is a place where we reduce the stress of the community in many ways, from directly or indirectly helping and educating the community to helping the community become self-sufficient.”
Similarly, Abdikani talks about how seniors often leave the chronic disease self-management class he teaches feeling empowered. “A lot of people sometimes feel like things are happening to them,” he says, “and there’s nothing they can do. But when we do these workshops, they feel like – oh, at least there’s something.”
Public health professionals like Awol connect these ideas of stress and power with the concept of social determinants of health. “The current public health model is very inclusive,” he says: If someone doesn’t have enough income to pay their rent, doesn’t have access to reliable transportation, or experiences the historical and everyday impact of racism and discrimination, their health is likely to suffer. Addressing these “determinants” can help improve health outcomes such as the impact of chronic illness on someone’s life or the risk of hospitalization due to the flu.
So whether that means staying on the phone with a senior’s insurance company for hours, providing transportation and interpreting at a DVS appointment, or facilitating a conversation about medication management, Pillsbury’s community health workers come alongside people where they are , to support them they go.
Dreaming about the future of public health
And they have big dreams for the future. “I want to see us more actively involved in housing assistance,” Fauzia says. No one should lose their home because they got sick or lost their job, she says: that’s part of being healthy, too. She is also excited to see Pillsbury begin to address mental health and opioid use disorders in the Cedar-Riverside and Phillips neighborhoods through new programs funded by the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
Awol also mentioned the growing opioid crisis facing Cedar-Riverside and neighborhoods in the city. “I will see that one day [Pillsbury] has a mental health and substance abuse program that stands on its own. . . ultimately, I’d like to have a hybrid approach—clinical and non-clinical.” He also mentions the expansion of public health programs from Cedar-Riverside to Phillips and North Minneapolis as one of the ways Pillsbury is already taking things into the future.
Abdikani sums up the holistic impact he and his team envision for community health work. “When we say public health,” he says, “a lot of people will think we’re just talking about disease, or viruses, or bacteria, but that’s not the case. It’s more about improving people’s quality of life, improving health, teaching people how to participate in meaningful relationships in their community, how to take care of their bodies and their brains. . . I wish I could say it in one word, but it’s a lot. What community health means to me is really a big deal.”
Did this article raise a question about your health? Do you know an older person who could benefit from learning how to manage their chronic condition? Contact the Pillsbury United Communities Public Health team by calling the Brian Coyle Center front desk at 612-338-5382 or emailing our director, Awol Windissa, at [email protected]
*In 2022, the health work of Pillsbury United Communities was funded by the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services, Trellis (through funding from the Older Americans Act), the CDC Foundation, and the Stephen Square Foundation.