Emma Rodgers, MS

Emma RodgersAs a Program Coordinator for the Partnership for a Healthier Bronx at Bronx Health REACH , Emma Rodgers helps to lead a community-based coalition that is working to reduce disparities in health outcomes in the Bronx. Emma attributes her passion for her work to the people, organizations, and spirit of residents and leaders in the Bronx and her family’s positive and negative experiences in the US health system. Emma’s recognition that stress is a major factor in the health outcomes of residents in the Bronx and her conviction for involving communities at the forefront of public health strategies to reduce health inequities contribute to our great respect for her and her work. Emma’s experiences reflect the opportunities and challenges of sustaining coalition-based work to address persistent health inequities.

Career in Profile

    • 2004 – BA in Government from Smith College, Northhampton, MA
    • 2004-2006 – Marketing Coordinator, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York City, NY
    • 2006-2008 – Associate Director of Planning and Buying, HN Media & Marketing, New York, NY
    • 2009-2010 – Intern, Division of Violence Prevention, Boston Public Health Commission, Boston, MA
    • 2010 – Graduated with a M.S. in Public Health from Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA
    • 2010-2012 – Borough Organizer, Bronx Smoke-Free Partnership, New York City Coalition for a Smoke-Free City, Bronx, NY
    • 2013-NOW – Adjunct Professor, Bronx Community College, Bronx, NY
    • 2012-NOW – Program Coordinator for the Partnership for a Healthier Bronx, Bronx Health REACH, Institute for Family Health, New York, NY

What inspires you and the work that you do?

I would say it’s the resilient and magnificent residents and organizations of the South Bronx. The South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the country. We’re the hungriest, most obese, most overweight – all of these things that say it’s a terrible place to live, to go to school, to work, raise a family. And yet there are so many amazing people and organizations doing wonderful things. This includes community members who recently became Zumba instructors and are advocating to improve their local park.  There’s also an affordable housing provider who, in addition to creating a new green, mixed-use development that will have a rooftop farm, supermarket, music and recreation center and affordable housing, is also looking to promote bike lanes, and to create a business improvement district. It is really an exciting time in the South Bronx. I feel very privileged to be part of this community and blessed that residents and organizations have included me in their families and in the work that they’re doing.

A lot of your work involves engaging community members and it follows a community organizing strategy. What inspires this approach to your work?

Historically, residents of the South Bronx and other low-income communities have not been involved in most aspects of public health programs. Outsiders, much like myself, would come into the community, identify the needs and the solutions, and implement programs without ever consulting the community. The community is an afterthought, a box that you check when you’ve done focus groups to make sure your program is on the right path. The community is never part of the process and more importantly, they’re never leading the process. In turn, many of these programs have not addressed the real needs of the community, never included culturally appropriate activities and materials, and the programs were unsuccessful and/or unsustainable. Doing true community-based public work might be frustrating to researchers and funders, because it takes longer – ten years, not two, like most grants. However, at the end of the day, it is my experience that these programs are much more successful, because the community is empowered and the real, root causes of these health issues are identified and addressed. Community residents know their community best, not me. At the end of the day, I go home to a different borough and no matter how many years I work in the Bronx and how many degrees I have, I always remember that. My job is to listen and support Bronx residents and organizations in any way that I can to make sure the health of Bronx residents improves.

What is a career success that you’re particularly proud of?

One of the primary goals of the initiative that I’m funded under is to create a borough-wide coalition. Much of my time is spent engaging partners, residents, and city agencies in other parts of the borough where my organization traditionally didn’t work. Last year, I was really proud of the work our group did around increasing access to healthy food. Many areas of the Bronx are food deserts or food swamps. Although fantastic new supermarkets are popping up every year, many communities still do not have access to healthy food in their neighborhood – bodegas and fast food restaurants are their only options. When I started my job, I had very little experience working in the food arena. Our funders wanted us to continue to “adopt” bodegas to transform them into healthy food retailers. However, despite the lack of healthy food, this initiative didn’t make much sense to me as our organizations didn’t have the capacity to help hundreds of individual bodegas and there already seemed to be a lot of organizations doing this work. Instead, we felt we would be much more helpful if we tried to coordinate the existing bodega work, which seemed abundant, but disorganized. It was common for two organizations in the same neighborhood to be doing similar programs, yet neither would know about the other. So, for the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time identifying which groups were doing the work, what resources each group had, what were the most successful programs, and how we could all work together to reach more people and create better programs. To my delight, most of the community groups and city agencies that I reached out to were thrilled to partner with other groups and be part of our larger coalition’s efforts. These organizations met monthly for almost a year, developed joint evaluation tools, shared best practices and many of the groups are now working together on joint bodega initiatives. Although there were many bumps in the road, this was a big win for the Bronx and my program.

What are some challenges that you’ve encountered or that you may continue to face in your career?

Funding is a big challenge. Despite the fact that community organizing is once again “hip” thanks to President Obama and many grant applications require community engagement, there is still very little funding for the work that I do — the pot of money is getting smaller and smaller and many of these larger initiatives are just not being funded at the same level. For many years, Bronx Health REACH was primarily funded through the REACH program (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health) at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). That was a very large grant that supported a very large staff and our partners for many years. In 2012, we became a sub-recipient of the Community Transformation Grant from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; however, this was significantly less funding, supporting only a few staff members. To top it all off, we just received word that the grant will end next fall, two years before it was expected to end.

Another major big challenge is that I’m not allowed to do policy and advocacy work, because I’m funded through the Affordable Care Act. All I can really do is educate people about different health issues and programs and hope that these community groups and residents will take their concerns to their elected officials and they will create legislation or increase funding for health programs. This is very frustrating, because I know that legislation is an extremely effective way to improve the health of a large community – a population-based approach is more effective and cheaper than going door to door. Also, it’s a lot to ask people who have kids, 3 jobs, and other major life stressors to do this work in their very limited free time. I understand why my funding prohibits me from working on policy. However, again, for people who have been doing this work for a long time and know what works, it’s very frustrating.

Finally, from an organizing standpoint, it’s hard to create a coalition when the “peaks” in your campaign are fairly small – an event, creating a curriculum, etc. Advocacy campaigns are exciting, have clear goals – they are something concrete that your community partners can rally around. In some ways, I think our coalition members are not as active right now, because there isn’t a specific campaign that we’re all working on together.

When it comes to public health, what matters to you and why?

Having the community at the forefront of what we do, especially in low-income communities. I think that in addition to making our programs more successful, you can’t morally do a program without having the community be at the forefront of the work. Also, again, it is important to increase funding for programs that focus on reducing health disparities in our country. I feel very privileged to live and work in a city where public health is a priority. Although much progress has been made, it is maddening how different a child’s life can be in one neighborhood versus the next. It’s unacceptable. I am hopeful though with our new Mayor. Finally, there continues to be limited funding for mental health programs and continued stigma around mental health issues in general. In the communities where I work and among my own family and friends, there is such a great need for mental health services. Despite increased attention these last few years, we have a long way to go.

Is there a persistent public health problem that still concerns you?

The challenge in many ways is that a lot of the health issues that are important to me and to others are rooted in poverty. The head of the Bronx District Public Health Office once famously said, ‘The Health Department shouldn’t be called the Health Department. It should be called the Department of Poverty Reduction.’ If we could possibly solve that problem, so many things would be fixed. It’s going to be a long time before an equitable society exists, but I’m encouraged by conversations with community leaders and organizations and grant applications that require public health groups to engage multiple sectors in their work and develop programs that properly address the root causes of health inequities in this country. My most exiting and impactful programs are those that include schools, housing providers, transportation and other sectors.

On the flip side, one of the big successes is tobacco control. The 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General’s report was released in January. When you think about how far we’ve come in this country – especially in New York City — with regards to smoking, it’s pretty amazing. The Bronx is tied with Brooklyn for the second lowest youth smoking rate in New York City at 6.7%. This is a real bright spot for the Bronx and the country.

Joe Zanoni, PhD

imageFolio_jz_final - for websiteDr. Joe Zanoni, like many others, considers himself an accidental public health practitioner.  He started his career as an early childhood/special education teacher in the 1980s.  After he was laid off he returned to school, and entered a labor relations program in hopes that it would prepare him to provide training and education for businesses.  This led him to work with labor unions, which in turn prepared him to work with various populations, from teaching health care workers about blood protections at dawn of the HIV/AIDS crisis, to his current focus on the safety and health of immigrant day laborers.  Dr. Zanoni has drawn upon these experiences and the educational philosophy of Paolo Frèire and others, to promote the importance of peer-led education.  He is particularly proud of his research with workers’ centers.  This work has shown how empowering immigrant workers – whose voices are often unheard and whose labor is markedly unregulated – can reduce their rates of death and injury on the job.  We are pleased to profile Dr. Zanoni as one of our public health heroes.

Career in Profile:

  • 1980: Completed his Bachelors of Science in Education, Disabilities at the University of Wisconsin
  • 1980 – 1983: Special Education Teacher at the Madison Metropolitan School District, Madison, WI
  • 1984 – 1986: Infant Care Provider at the Kunkle Center, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  • 1986: Completed his Master of Industrial and Labor Relations at the University of Wisconsin
  • 1987 – 1991: Research and Legislative Coordinator, Service Employees International Union, Local 150, Milwaukee, WI
  • 1991 – 1997: International Senior Representative for Health and Safety, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Chicago
  • 1998: Program Manager, Great Lakes Center for Occupational and Environmental Safety and Health, University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Public Health, Chicago, IL
  • 1998 – 2010: Associate Director of Continuing Education and Outreach, Illinois Occupational and Environmental Education and Research Center (IOEERC), University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Public Health, Chicago, IL
  • 2007 – 2010: Instructor at the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (EOHS), SPH-UIC
  • 2010 – Completed his PhD in Education: Curriculum Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago
  • 2010 – NOW: Research Assistant Professor, EOHS, University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Public Health
  • 2011 – NOW: Director of Continuing Education and Outreach at the IOEERC, preparing masters and doctoral graduates to serve as occupational and environmental health professionals in the areas of industrial hygiene, nursing, medicine, safety and epidemiology

Can you tell us about a career highlight?

I’m really proud of the work that I’m doing with workers’ centers because there are so many things that are part of it. I’m most proud of my dissertation, and also the Charla work.  Charla means “to converse, talk or chat” in Spanish.  It’s a social learning process.  I worked on a pilot study through the University of Illinois School of Public Health, where I learned about workers centers.  These centers are community-based groups, and this brought our focus from unions to immigrant groups.  We went to workers’ centers in Chicago and asked, “How do you like to learn?”  Instead of offering them training, we wanted to know, “How can this be part of what you are doing?”

They said, “We don’t really want to come to a training session, we don’t want to be lectured at, we’d like to learn in some kind of informal chat…like a charla!”  “What would that be like?” “Like sitting around doing different things, and then all of sudden we start talking about something.”

I thought “Wow, why don’t we delve into this?”  So I worked with three different workers’ centers to create a team of people that set up Charlas that invite people to talk about health and safety on the job.  The twist is that we’d do it in a communal setting.  I found a Spanish-speaking, culturally relevant colleague and trained him to facilitate three sessions at each workers’ center.

We’ve since continued this work with another research project. We trained peer educators to lead trainings at worker centers.  We had to have authorized trainers in the room, but they co-lead with the peer educators in a small group workshop format.  We have lots of workers employed in these types of jobs, where many immigrant workers die on the job for a variety of different reasons.

We started in Chicago, and when we heard about other Midwest workers centers we created a train-the-trainer program.  In our third year, we expanded to the Southwest.  We’ve also performed assessments to see how we were doing.  We want to know, “What did they learn?  What is the social context of the training? How are the workers’ centers and the peer relationships? How did they develop and how can they extend practices in the job to protect them?”  That work has been very satisfying.

What’s a career challenge that you’ve faced?

The funding aspect is always a challenge.  How do you sustain an effort? We can create a good idea or a great intervention, but especially if you work with community partners how do we keep it going?

When it comes to public health, what matters to you and why?

The glaring inequities in the U.S.!  So often we are told that we are the richest and smartest country in the world.  We are the top!  We’re the model for the rest of the world!  That’s not necessarily true.  Those of us in occupational health go crazy over the debate about jobs … because it’s not just jobs!  What kind of job are we talking about?  What’s the quality of the job?  What’s the health of the people in their job?  All of that links together.  Yes, some people are healthy but other people are not.  How did we get that way, and what do we need to address in society to fix it?

What is a persistent public health problem that concerns you?

Injury, illness and death on the job.  Overall, if you look at the statistics of death on the job, the trend is decreasing.  But that trend is not true for all subgroups.  For example, Latino immigrants have a much higher “death on the job rate” than white males.  Why is that? It’s the kind of work that they are doing.

It’s almost like we are coming back around to what Jane Addams and her colleagues at Hull House worked on.  We need to improve workplace conditions for specific groups of people who are on the margins, or those who are trying to integrate into society and don’t get enough support.  Liberty Mutual estimates that we lose $50 billion a year due to injury, illness and death on the job.  It’s important to look at where work happens, who knows about it, and who can create the structure and support.  A lot of effort went into creating OSHA but that’s for traditional work places. What about other work places?  What about day laborers, construction, family businesses?  We should place greater effort into addressing and enforcing non-traditional work.

What’s your ideal solution to this problem?

We should support the education of community health workers and peer educators. What kind of curriculum do they want?  There are some groups doing incredible grass roots work with communities to determine what those communities want and need. They collaborate to develop training and curricula that meets people where they are. How can we support workers to learn and share with each other, and put more energy into their organizations? How can public health teach them how to work in collaborative ways? How can we teach them to teach each other about being healthy and safe, and how can that expand and make their work more secure?  We have very vulnerable workers who are day laborers, or people that have just come in the country trying to find work, they are trying to survive.  We need to explore these issues in public health, and we should do it through workers’ centers, community health workers and peer communities. All these people need to be encouraged and supported.

Reflective: Looking Back On Volumes 4-6

Every four months we pause from conversations with public health leaders to reflect on lessons learned from their varied careers, and insights into persistent and emerging public health challenges.

We are Public Health has been honored to feature conversations with several groundbreaking, widely respected pioneers in the field.  The last three volumes highlighted Dr. Len Syme, father of social epidemiology, and Dr. Jack Geiger, a pioneer of the community health center movement in the US.  As Dr. Geiger acknowledged in his interview, “we all stand on the shoulders of others.”  The ripple effect of their unique contributions to our field is evident in the work of other featured practitioners such as Jim Bloyd, Dr. Sandra Witt and Dr. Bob Prentice, who are all working to operationalize Dr. Syme’s and others’ social determinants of health framework in communities and within government institutions.  Similarly, we see Dr. Geiger’s strategy of engaging, organizing and empowering community members to create their own solutions and successfully address public health challenges reflected in Emma Rodgers’ coalition-driven work in the Bronx, Laura Sanders’ advocacy for immigrants’ rights in Southeastern Michigan, Arnell Hinkle’s efforts to create youth-led and culturally appropriate nutrition and physical activity resources, Dr. Joe Zanoni’s work to improve the health and safety of immigrant day laborers, and finally in Dr. Joseph West’s community research on diabetes in Chicago’s North Lawndale network.

Drs. Syme and Geiger’s legacies extend beyond these amazing public health workers who continue to “stand on their shoulders”.  Their impact is also evident in current public health work and policies. These days, it is rare for public health students to graduate from any school of public health without a working knowledge of the social determinants of health. In the field, the determinants are widely considered just as critical to supporting and improving the health of communities and reducing health inequities as the delivery of clinical services. Additionally, community health centers are rapidly becoming the go-to places for many Americans to seek health care and community resources.  In the age of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, these centers play a central role as the medical homes of low-income residents across the nation, and a growing number are finding creative ways to integrate the social determinants into primary care.

When we started this website we hoped that we would be able to feature public health’s well respected and renown pioneers. We are delighted to also see the connections between their groundbreaking work, and the current efforts of a diverse set of public health practitioners.  It is truly inspiring to witness the evolution of their audacious visions.

We are so excited about where the next three volumes will take us!  We look forward to reflecting on more trends in these public health histories.

Causandra Gaines, BSW

causandra gainesCausandra Gaines, BSW has worked in Westside Detroit for 27 years.  A social worker by training, Ms. Gaines’ passion for working with young people – spanning from infants to elementary and middle school students to young mothers – clearly comes through when she reflects on her work in the Brightmoor community in Detroit, MI.  Her commitment to community-based participatory research partnerships, and to improving the ability for all community members to live up to their full potential, are evident in her reflections on her thirty-year career.  Ms. Gaines recently retired from a leadership role at the Brightmoor Community Center in Detroit.

Career in Profile:

  • 1974 – 1978: Completed her Associates in Applied Art Social Service Technician Corrections and Bachelor of Science in Human Services at Ferris State University
  • 1982 – 1986 – Counselor, Vista Maria
  • 1986 – 2003 – Group Social Worker, Brightmoor Community Center
  • 2003 – 2005 – Vice President/COO, Brightmoor Community Center
  • 2005 – 2012 – President/CEO, Brightmoor Community Center
  • 2012 – 2013  – Director of Operations, Brighmoor Community Center
  • NOW: Retired

 

What are some of your best career successes or career highlights that you’re really proud of?

I really liked our Zero to Three program, where we worked with mothers and their children aged zero to three.  That’s the point where you can help a young mother who has nothing and give her some of the things that she needs.  It could be a car seat, diapers, or formula.  Or, show her that there is potential out there for her.  That she can get a job, be successful.  Help her to navigate the system so she can get the things that she needs.  Through that program, we have helped people get housing, jobs, and make sure that kids have formula, diapers, and clothes.  It is just a joy to see a person’s face when you are able to give them those things.  That’s what’s important.

One career success was through all of the economic downfalls, and all of the money that the Community Center lost, I was able to keep these doors open.  We survived it.  It was a rough five years, just figuring out how you’re going to keep the place open.  Sometimes I was the only person who was working and I did most of it by myself.

When it comes to public health, what matters to you?  Why?

I think our biggest health challenge in Detroit is exercise.  I think that the best thing that we (the Healthy Environments Partnership Steering Committee, a community-based participatory research project) did is that our walking groups allowed folks to make a change.  We used a participatory process from the planning stage to the implementation stage, and participants really enjoyed the walking groups.  They understood how important it is for people to be healthy.  Exercising and eating the right food does prolong your life.  When you get to be 60, 70 and 80, you want to be an independent person able to take care of yourself.  The way to get there is to take care of your body, especially as we get seasoned.  There are a lot of groups, like health plans and health centers, who are willing to help.   I still believe that we have a long way to go.

What do you think it will take to address these public health challenges?

It’s good to talk about good nutrition and healthy things, but we have to have to access things.  In the summer, we have the farmer’s market.  Now, it’s getting cold.  Fresh vegetables are gone.  How can we continue to bring fresh fruits and vegetables into the community?  How can we leverage the big retailers to want to come and do that?  Also, we need to educate the people in the community.  When you get these wonderful things, you have to educate the community.  Sometimes it’s about educating one person at a time or working with one group at a time.  Once you teach that group, they can spread it on to the next folks.

My main focus over the last 8 years has been to make sure that the Brightmoor Community Center succeeds.  Right now, we’re on our 88th year.  My goal is that it succeeds to be 100, plus.  The community built the Brightmoor Community Center.  This is a focal point for the community.  We want to be a place where we are a one-stop shop, where you can access everything.  We want to take care of your health needs, nutrition needs, and offer a space where you can exercise.  We have a daycare.  We want to make sure that you have a place where your kids can go while you’re at work.  If you have an addiction, you can come get help with that.  If you have spiritual needs, you can come here to church.  We just want to make sure that we can help you to access anything you need.  We may not have a program, but we want you to know where you can go to address your health and other needs.  We’re like a community center that has all of these legs that go in one direction.  The legacy that I want to leave is to make sure that the community center is here, serving the community, and doing what it needs to do for 100, plus years.