Community Health Boards Make Resilient Communities

Community connectedness is one of the pillars of health that can counter the impacts of trauma and adversity. Yesterday’s blog introduced some key concepts in trauma-informed practice. In today’s blog, we’ll look at how communities are building those connections and fostering resilience, demonstrating how community-led initiatives are beneficial for health. 

In the field of public health emergency preparedness, we often speak in terms of vulnerabilities in our communities. But recently, there has also been a focus on community resilience, that is, those qualities that make groups of people better able to prepare for, absorb, recover from, and adapt to adversity. Often it’s the strengths of communities—like their readiness to help one another, their collective knowledge and skills, and their scrappy problem-solving—that make the greatest difference in how a community fares.  

A model for community resilience emerged from a public health emergency  

Champion of Change
Mohamed Ali of the Somali Health Board (SHB) received a White House Champion of Change award for the SHB’s snowstorm response in 2012. He is also an environmental health planner at Public Health.

The Somali Health Board is an organization that reinforces resilience in the Somali community. This group formed after the  H1N1 pandemic in 2009-10 when health professionals in the Somali community came together to provide input and advice to our health department about needed improvements in our outreach to their community. In the process, they found value in meeting with one another and having dialogue with the health department about their concerns. In 2011, the group founded the Somali Health Board.  

In the years since, the Somali Health Board has harnessed their expertise as health professionals and advocates to tackle health issues of concern to local Somalis, including maternal and child health, chronic disease, and mental health. They have held well-attended health fairs where community members can get free health screenings, held flu vaccination clinics, developed support programs for pregnant moms, and set up an emergency shelter in a mosque during a snow storm.  

Building on the existing strengths and fortifying the connections 

In addition to the Somali Health Board, ten other health boards have formed in recent years within the Ethiopian, LatinX, Vietnamese, Khmer, Pacific Islander, African American, Eritrean, Iraqi/Arab, Congolese, and African communities.  

Minh Nguyen-Wichman, Lee Phuc Ly, Kim Lundgreen, and Khanh Ho reaching out to the community at Co Lam temple at an event to mark Buddha’s birthday in 2018.

The Vietnamese Health Board is one of the newer organizations, but quickly got to work setting goal areas by collecting input from local Vietnamese Americans at community health fairs, local businesses, and senior centers. According to board member Khanh Ho, the Vietnamese Health Board also prioritized addressing health across generations, including health education for youth (especially related to drug use and controlled substances), mental and behavioral health, and advocacy for full Medicare coverage. 

Khanh’s day job is at Public Health, training community health workers connected to the Lower Duwamish Waterway. Having worked with Vietnamese community health workers, Khanh appreciates the strengths that already exist to mobilize about issues, and she aims to highlight those strengths in her volunteer work on the board. 

“We need to look to experts already around the table,” said Khanh, noting that the Vietnamese Health Board includes health professionals with extensive experience with outreach, community programming, research, and healthcare. “I think there’s a tendency for a lot of folks in this group to look elsewhere for expertise and bring in outside expertise when we can look to each other. I think looking elsewhere instead of looking at ourselves is an internalization of what folks are used to, and also part of a strong cultural value of humility .

Khanh also believes that the Vietnamese Health Board can play a role in bringing different subgroups within the Vietnamese community together around common health goals, resulting in a more unified Vietnamese community. 

“In order to mobilize effectively, we need to make our connections stronger,” she said. “When it comes to health and healthcare access, everyone needs it, everyone has that right, and we’re there to promote that in the community.” 

Community health boards and the connection to Public Health – Seattle & King County 

Partnerships between the community health boards and Public Health have already improved public health practice. When the Somali Health Board identified households without electricity during a snowstorm in 2012, Public Health’s preparedness section helped coordinate resources with King County Emergency Management so that the Somali Health Board could set up a shelter at a local mosque.  In 2016, when there was a measles outbreak among the Somali community in Minnesota, we enlisted the Somali Health Board to run a local outreach campaign on measles with funding support from the Washington Department of Health; the resulting campaign was innovative in its use of social media and local Somali media and carried the credibility of the health leaders in that community.  

Adiam Mengis, a health educator in Public Health’s Environmental Health division who serves on the Eritrean Health Board, has noticed the value of such partnerships for both her community and the health department. She gave the example of Eritrean Health Board connecting with Public Health’s food program to increase understanding of safe food supply chains in the wake of some foodborne illness outbreaks.

Eritrean Health Board 1
Public Health health educator Adiam Mengis (left) and other members of the Eritrean Health Board doing outreach at a soccer tournament.

“At first people in the Eritrean community asked, ‘Who are you? Why are you doing this?’” Adiam recalled. “But then they actually heard about the content, why the safety of the food supply chain is important and the fact that Public Health was out there to listen to what the community had to say. They were really happy and really opened up. They provided recommendations and also mentioned what they expected from Public Health. I believe it was a good start for Public Health to see what the Eritrean Health Board could do and for the community to say, ‘Oh, Public Health is working on things that are important for our community.’” 

A Coalition of Community Health Boards 

Each of the eleven community health boards has a shared ownership in a newly formed Coalition of Community Health Boards. The Coalition received support from Communities of Opportunity in 2017 to strengthen cohesion across the represented groups, use a community-centered process to develop a joint policy agenda, and create a strong platform for voicing community concerns about health.  

Khanh Ho of the Vietnamese Health Board finds solidarity in putting together a policy agenda as a Coalition and supporting the other health boards. 

All of the health boards are communities of color and we are affected—even if it’s in different ways—by the issues brought forth by the Coalition,” she said. 

 Adiam observed that the Eritrean Health Board can build upon the strengths of the other health boards through the Coalition. 

“The Somali Health Board and the LatinX Health Board have been around for a long time, they’ve been through a lot of things and we can learn from them. Not only that, all health boards could learn from each other, support each other and push for programs and legislation that will advance the interest of all communities as there is strength in unity.”  

Originally posted on April 2, 2019.

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I am a risk communications specialist at Public Health - Seattle & King County.