By Ifeoma C. Udoh, PhD; Kendra Hypolite, MSW, LSW; Kristin Kennedy, MS, MPH, CPH; Aisha Mays, MD, Nkemka Egbuho, MPH, Porchea Fort, MA, Alma Burrell, MPH, Noha Aboelata, MD
February 24, 2022 | ETR and Roots Community Health Center
The 2022 national theme for Black History Month, “Black Health and Wellness,” pays tribute to often-unrecognized Black health care professionals, including mental and spiritual health providers. Black health care professionals have a unique responsibility of providing not only for their patients but also for their communities. The presence of Black healthcare professionals is an integral part of helping to rebuild Black communities’ trust in the health care system. The growth of mistrust is in part a response to the pattern of medical providers’ refusal to accept our pain as valid, as well as to the history of exploitation and experimentation in medical research, which has led to multigenerational trauma.
Furthermore, the United States’ health infrastructure has deadly implications for Black birthing people and their families—Black birthing people in this country are more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than folks in any other industrialized country. To address this systemic inequity, a transformation must be nothing short of revolutionary. Holistic health approaches must honor the strengths of Black women, while recognizing the myriad of vulnerabilities that they face in a society that has historically dismissed their voices.
ETR recognizes the importance of addressing the systems of oppression that impact individuals, families, and their communities’ ability to achieve holistic health and wellness. We are committed to expanding our portfolio of community-driven projects focused on #BlackFamilyWellness, including our partnership as external evaluators to the Roots Community Health Center Food as Medicine program.
In this conversation, ETR’s Black Family Wellness team is joined by the Roots Community Health Center (RCHC) team to discuss the need for utilizing a holistic community-led approach to address systemic racism in health care.
ETR’s Black Family Wellness Team (ETR): As you know, this year’s theme for Black History Month is “Black Health and Wellness,” and we are so happy to have you here with us to discuss Black Family Wellness. For those who don’t know, can you tell us about Roots Community Health Center and some of the services your clinic offers?
Roots Community Health Clinic Team (RCHC): Roots Community Health Center (RCHC) is a Black women-led health center founded in a culturally urban landscape and rooted in the history of Black communities caring for one another. We have created a model of holistic healthcare which is both successful and healing for the Black community, in one of the most diverse U.S. cities—Oakland, California. Roots has over 40 programs that address the medical, behavioral health, housing, advocacy, education, and employment needs of the community.
ETR: In 2020, Roots launched a “food is medicine” program to tackle food access in Oakland, CA. Tell us the idea behind implementing this program, which addresses food access and provides nutritional education and support. What is the long-term impact your clinic hoped to have on Black women and families?
RCHC: One of the overall goals of the Food is Medicine program is to address the health outcomes for Black women who are pregnant. In Santa Clara County, data shows us that Black babies are two times more likely to die in their first year of life than other babies, and approximately 1 in 10 births are preterm and/or are babies born at a low birth weight (Santa Clara County Public Health Department, 2018).
Food assistance and nutrition education are important parts of the program, but it’s so much more than that. We center the “whole health” needs of Black women who are pregnant, which other food is medicine programs fail to do. We recognize how challenging it can be for families to make healthy food choices, especially when their access to these options is limited.
ETR: How does the Food is Medicine program align with the mission and vision of Roots as an organization?
RCHC: The mission of the Roots is to “uplift those impacted by systemic inequalities and poverty,” and the Food is Medicine program partners with women in the program to meet their unique needs. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the care we give to our communities. We know the importance of supporting one’s “whole health,” while providing a space to be in community with other Black women.
ETR: How does Roots serve as a model for Black-centered and community-driven care?
RCHC: RCHC operationalizes a social entrepreneur model, which trains and employs community members marginalized from mainstream employment systems due to life circumstances (such as prior incarceration), effectively creating a model for how Black-centered community-driven care can fundamentally change the health, economic, and social justice landscape for an entire population. Through this empowerment-driven lens, RCHC also designed and implemented three flagship program initiatives for the sexual reproductive health of Black women: Women of Wellness, Young Mothers Rising, and Food is Medicine. These wrap-around and navigated health access points address the continuous cycle of Black reproductive health from pre-pregnancy to beyond the post-partum months.
ETR: You spoke about the importance of Black reproductive health. How does Roots empower Black women to engage in their health care, particularly their reproductive health and whole-body wellness?
RCHC: The foundation of sexual health and trauma-informed service delivery is an approach to Black Family Wellness that RCHC has embedded into our infrastructure and programs—designed to allow Black women the space to navigate their own sexual health without the stigma of hypersexualization; to provide food and nutritional access as a modality for addressing whole-body wellness and acknowledging body health for Black women without the stigma attached to food insecurity; and to empower women to engage in their health care with culturally congruent providers who are trained to “listen and believe” as a fundamental practice.
ETR: ETR’s audiences are diverse and include educators and health care providers who are always seeking new solutions to address needs in their communities. Do you have any tips for those who are looking to implement similar programs, using Roots as a model for Black Family Wellness?
RCHC: This holistic model can be replicated by utilizing community-responsive and scientific-driven practices to improve the health outcomes of Black women and their families. Food is Medicine programs should support families to build their own sustainable habits for their future.
When delivering any community-based program, it’s important to respond and adapt to the changing needs of the community. This is particularly important during a global pandemic.
Organizations must recognize the value of having a workforce that is racially congruent with the communities that it serves and employ people that share similar lived experiences with those they support. This approach is invaluable to building the trust of the people who engage with the programs and services.
ETR: Thank you again for sharing about your work to engage and empower Black communities. We are extremely grateful to serve as the external evaluator on the Food is Medicine program and in partnership with Roots in the fight for health equity.
Ifeoma C. Udoh, PhD1; Kendra Hypolite, MSW, LSW1; Kristin Kennedy, MS, MPH, CPH1; Aisha Mays, MD2, Nkemka Egbuho, MPH2, Porchea Fort, MA2, Alma Burrell, MPH2, Noha Aboelata, MD2