Helping People Learn to Take Care of Themselves

A Profile of Atum Azzahir, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader

    • February 19, 2007

The Problem: The quality of life in a community is immensely important to the health of its citizens. How can the residents of a poor neighborhood, plagued by poor health, be mobilized to help reduce isolation; improve safety; promote physical, mental and spiritual well-being-and ultimately to achieve overall wellness?

Grantee Background: Atum Azzahir grew up in the south, in the pre-civil rights days of Jim Crow laws that legitimized de facto segregation. Her parents and extended family showed her how to take pride in her heritage and maintain her dignity and self-respect, in spite of the indignities suffered as African Americans. One incident she vividly remembers is the time a white man spat in her father's face. "I saw my father stand there with a kind of dignity that has never left me. … He taught me, by walking away and going home, and talking and laughing about things that were joyful, that there was a different kind of strength than what was obvious. It told me that, no matter what anybody says, you are in control of your own destiny."

After moving to Wisconsin 1961, Azzahir married, raised children and became involved in community organizing around the burgeoning civil rights movement. She helped to start breakfast programs for school children and joined in protests against forced busing. Later, in Minneapolis, she held various administrative jobs in health care, was executive director of a women's shelter and head of a new school-readiness program for children of young, low-income mothers.

"I think what got me into the field of health was really my basic tendency to be a community organizer," she says. "Community organizing is the basic way that I feel people have to learn how to take care of themselves. Being self-determined, independent, self-sufficient."

Meanwhile, a vision was forming in Azzahir's mind of a model of how a community could begin to heal itself, and ultimately, achieve improved health. Her vision focused on the health status of the neighborhood where she lived-Powderhorn, the poorest area in Minneapolis, with the city's highest rates of infant mortality, low birthweight and absence of prenatal care.

With support from the mayor and youth commissioner, and with corporate funding, in 1994, Azzahir created Healthy Powderhorn. It aimed to improve the neighborhood's health and quality of life by bringing people together over the issues that affected their lives using grassroots, Citizen Health Action Teams. Among the many initiatives begun: a youth tumbling team and art program, garden plantings, a farmer's market, a health fair and a community play. The strategy for Healthy Powderhorn: Personal relations foster community, and community fosters health.

For her many efforts and accomplishments, in 1996, Azzahir received the Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Award.

Results: "The award was very important for us," she stresses. "It was pivotal. Because of it, our program got local, and then national, visibility. And it really increased my confidence. It was validation of what Healthy Powderhorn was doing, encouragement to continue doing it."
She also was able to move forward with a new piece of her dream-a holistic lifestyle center. Opened in early 1996, it provides a space for community members to discover, express and preserve their cultural heritages; enroll in a broad array of fitness and health-related classes; and be exposed to alternative medical interventions and therapies.

The Community Health Leadership Program has made Azzahir part of a network of past and present awardees, with whom she has met at annual retreats. "It didn't seem like my work was so isolated any more. It felt like it was a part of a bigger plan, a bigger effort," says Azzahir.

RWJF Perspective: The Community Health Leadership Program was initiated by RWJF in 1991 to recognize the extraordinary contributions of community leaders who are instrumental in improving the health and health care of in their local communities. The program honors unsung and inspirational individuals who work with the most disenfranchised populations.

The formal recognition by the foundation often launches these leaders and their programs to greater levels of influence and extends their reach to serve more vulnerable populations. RWJF provides a financial award to the individual and their organization as well as critical guidance in strategic planning, board development, marketing and communications. Equally important, RWJF connects the community health leaders with one another to enable programs to build upon the wisdom and experience of previous leaders.

"Against all odds, our Community Health Leaders continue to remind us of the difference that one person can make and we are exceedingly proud of their endeavors," says Judith Stavisky, RWJF program officer.