Shortly after my wife and I started dating, she convinced me to move to a town of about 1,500 people, named Chimacum, near her hometown on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I wasn’t used to the slower pace of life or how everyone knew everyone (and everyone’s business). Quickly though, I learned to love the strong sense of community and the agrarian way of life. I also became attuned to some of the challenges of living in an isolated, rural community, including the boom or bust nature of the economy, stark class and racial divides, lack of quality access to things like health care, transportation, and healthy food, and how we were essentially invisible to the dominant, urban, political and social establishment.
While there, I worked on a multi-year initiative to organize and build power among forestry workers who were predominately recent immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. This group of workers toiled in extremely dangerous jobs while facing social isolation, systemic racism, and political attacks. Our work put a national spotlight on their plight and also began a shift in the community toward reconciliation, immigrant rights, and worker safety.
At Center for Health Progress, we’ve long had a commitment to working in partnership with Colorado’s rural communities to highlight their many assets and overcome some of the unique inequities they face. The foundation of this work is our grassroots organizing program that builds leadership and power among people who have historically lacked a seat at the decision-making table. We also work with those who already have power in rural communities, including health systems leaders, local politicians, and other community leaders, to cultivate institutional change that promotes health equity, especially for immigrant communities.
Today, I’m excited to announce that I’m part of a dynamic Colorado team that has been awarded a national fellowship, through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Research Leaders program, that brings even more focus to our work to correct the health inequities immigrants face in rural Colorado. Our research team, which includes Dr. María de Jesús Díaz-Pérez, Director of Public Reporting at the Center for Improving Value in Health Care (and one of our incredible board members), and Dr. Karen Albright, Associate Professor at the University of Denver, will work with immigrants and health care leaders in Fort Morgan over the next three years to implement and measure the effectiveness of health care interventions that address the social determinants of health and systemic oppression.
I’m especially excited to be a part of a program that uniquely focuses on building research skills among community-based organizations and pushes academic researchers to incorporate community organizing principles and an equity lens into their work. As our team at Center for Health Progress has been building out new strategies in line with our strategic framework, we’ve constantly been faced with two critical questions: (1) Which strategies will be most effective at making change? and (2) How will we know? To answer these questions, it has become abundantly clear that we need to understand emerging trends in health equity research and partner with researchers to fill in gaps in the literature. Our work in the IRL program will directly strengthen the evidence-base around a critical question we constantly wrestle with: How can health care systems move their resources upstream toward interventions that address the root causes of poor health?
After two years of living in rural Washington, my wife and I moved back to Denver, but I left rural Washington with a deep appreciation for the rural way of life and a commitment to working with rural communities moving forward. I’m thrilled that I’ll get to skip town more frequently in the coming years and work in true partnership with Fort Morgan community members to continue to build a multiracial movement for health equity in Colorado.