Helping People Learn to Take Care of Themselves

    • October 16, 2015

Originally posted: February 19, 2007
Last updated: October 16, 2015

Position at time of the award: Founder, Healthy Powderhorn; Minneapolis, Minnesota

Current position: Executive director, The Cultural Wellness Center; Minneapolis, Minnesota

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?

Growing up with Jim Crow. 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."

Becoming a community organizer. 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: 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.

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

"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." With the award, she established The Cultural Wellness Center, a holistic lifestyle center that was an outgrowth of Powderhorn. 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.

Postscript. Azzahir later moved on to become executive director of the Cultural Wellness Center, which is based in the idea of “unleashing the power of citizens to heal themselves and build community.” The center contracts with organizations seeking greater community involvement. Azzahir talks about the work of the center on vimeo.

RWJF perspective: The Foundation recognized the first 10 RWJF Community Health Leaders in 1993—unsung and inspiring individuals who work in their communities, often among the most disenfranchised populations, to address some of the nation’s most intractable health care problems. The last round of leaders was chosen in the fall of 2012. The program closed at the end of 2014. For more information, see the Special Report.