By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Azure’de ‘DeDe’ Williams will never forget the way her father received the news that he had prostate cancer. The provider’s bedside manner was lacking as was the simple brochure her father received following the diagnosis. Her father started to cry.
Watching her father cry – a man who Williams had never seen show any emotion – got Williams thinking on how diagnoses are delivered and who they’re delivered by. When a health professional has cultural sensitivity training, it makes a difference, she said.
Williams is the executive director of the Milwaukee Area Health Education Center also known as AHEC. The organization focuses on addressing the barriers that prevent people from addressing their health – such as a history of poor bedside manner – and creating a diverse health care workforce by engaging the community.
This year, AHEC is celebrating its 30-year anniversary as a catalyst of change in the Milwaukee community and beyond.
The organization is a part of the Wisconsin Area Health Education Center, which in turn is a part of the National Area Health Education Center. The national program began as way to address the community health needs.
“We’re trying to make sure that we increase that diversity and the distribution of health care workers throughout our region, so we can promote health equity for all,” Williams said, adding that AHEC’s work has not only contributed to the health care workforce but to the economic vibrancy of the city.
The organization does this work through three primary strategies: connecting students to professionals, connecting professionals to the community and connecting community to better health.
In its 30-year history, AHEC has served over 20,000 individuals. It offers nine different programs throughout the year, including the Community Health Workers program, an Aging Mastery program, the Community Health Internship program, youth health services corps and more.
Williams noted that the programs’ success is due in part to its strategic partnerships with iCare, Advocate Aurora, Progressive Community Health Centers and more.
Through the community health worker training program, Milwaukee AHEC trains and shares those stories, so students have the knowledge and receive hands-on experience.
“They learn to treat the entire person and not the diagnoses or the treatment,” she said. “It makes a huge difference.”
Williams, who assumed the role as executive director in June 2017, explained she was drawn to the position because of the employees and their ability and desire to listen to residents. She had previously worked with AHEC on a campaign on hypertension awareness during her time at the American Heart Association.
“When I saw how well these community health workers were able to instantly build rapport with these hypertension program participants, how knowledgeable they were of other community resources…I just had so much respect for them,” she said.
They took the time to speak with participants and understand their struggles from unemployment and underemployment to housing issues to transportation, she said. They were trained to be great listeners and connectors.
“It makes a big difference when you have health professionals who have been trained on cultural sensitivity,” Williams said. “That they’re aware of systemic oppression that folks are experiencing in a community and why they may be distrustful.”
She added, “People who are from the community, they have a long memory of what has happened and how people have been treated. They’re going to approach and they’re going to convey that information with sensitivity, cause they know that history.”
At AHEC, it’s not all about health – it’s about recognizing the factors that play into one’s health, that is, the social determinants of health such as food, housing and education.
The community health workers program explains what health outreach and promotion look like, what navigating community resources and so on. The organization strives to work with individuals who are familiar with the community, so when they’re out doing the work, people feel seen.
When individuals step into a health care setting, they want to see individuals and materials such as magazines and brochures who reflect the community they come from and if they don’t it creates a barrier, Williams said.
The nature of the organization’s programs ensures that individuals from the community are serving the community. When people feel safe, they can focus on their health. They’ll feel empowered to access care and to ask questions about their health.
The alternative is people wait too long to seek help and instead of preventing an issue, it becomes about treating the issue.
“Without your health and without your education, it really limits the quality of life you can have,” Williams said.
To celebrate its 30-year anniversary, Milwaukee Area Health Education Center will be having a luncheon on Thursday, June 23. Tickets are $45.