Promoting Healthy Living
Effective communication and advocacy within a community means knowing the community—who they are, their culture, their concerns—and speaking with residents in ways they’ll understand best. For Brownsville, that means a bilingual approach.
According to Gowen, “The Mexican-American culture in Brownsville is a strength. We live and work and celebrate on both sides of the border, and it’s important that we reach out in English and Spanish. The more that we are diverse in our messaging, the more people we reach and the more changes we effect.”
Part of that approach is the use of “Promotoras”—community health workers who engage and educate people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to health care, as well as to connect them with community resources. As community members themselves, the Promotoras also benefit from job training and economic opportunities. This helps to fuel the local economy and create more opportunities for health through stable income.
Although community health workers exist in many different places throughout the country, one thing that sets the Brownsville effort apart is the extent to which this role has been institutionalized. Brownsville’s Promotoras are certified through a state program, but many do not have college degrees. Despite this obstacle, Brownsville’s Community Advisory Board leadership recently succeeded in creating academic appointments (with benefits) for the Brownsville community health workers, who are now serving as Research Assistants at the UT Brownsville School of Public Health.
Promotoras also serve an important connecting role in the community. Gowen notes examples: “They also speak to the community about events that are coming... They engage folks in healthy cooking lessons while they’re in the homes and tell them where free exercise classes are. They also provide referrals to needed health resources. Their work is effective and translates to fewer trips to the hospital, lower rates of chronic illness, higher engagement and higher participation in the community as a whole.”
One of the key community resources the Promotoras now have to connect residents to is a robust system of affordable, healthy food and economic opportunities through the Brownsville Farmers’ Market. Community gardens in economically depressed food insecure neighborhoods are part of the mission of the Market, in an effort to boost income generation opportunities, as well as healthy foods options, for the entire community. Families gather in groups for training on gardening, small business development, nutrition and health, and plant their gardens in city-donated vacant lots, some of which are designed by architecture students and built by AmeriCorps/YouthBuild volunteers.
Finally, Brownsville’s public health efforts include “Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta!”—or “Your Health Matters!”—a bilingual community wide campaign program that uses television, radio and print to motivate people on both sides of the border to increase their physical activity and healthful food choices said Reininger. Results from the Cameron County Hispanic Cohort study indicate this approach works, as residents are more likely to be physically active and eat more fruits and vegetables.