In Your Neighborhood

A stressful day in the neighborhood

How community health workers in a local city neighborhood are helping residents survive in a time of pandemic

Photo courtesy of ONE Neighborhood Builders

An older photograph of ONE Neighborhood Builders Community Health Worker Yuselly Mendoza, who volunteers some of her time at the Federal Hill House Food Pantry, which has been a key source of food for our community members.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/20/20
The community health worker team at ONE Neighborhood Builders has shifted to a virtual mode to support residents in vulnerable neighborhoods during a time of instability caused by pandemic.
Is there a way to build a different kind of decision-making during the pandemic that promotes bottom-up innovation at the community level, rather than top-down, CEO-driven, corporate decision-making? With advertisers reluctant to spend money to promote their closed businesses, how will digital news formats such as ConvergenceRI change the news gathering landscape? How many people have found a way to obtain masks from a friend or a neighbor with sewing capabilities? How do you plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22?
Maria Carvalho will become the new executive director of West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation, effective May 4, succeeding Sharon Conard-Wells, the long-time leader of the community development corporation, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Carvalho had been serving as the director of the Dunamis Synergy initiative at West Elmwood. Having stepped away from day-to-day activities, Conard-Wells will continue to serve the group as a director of special projects.
There is still a lot of grumbling by the “usual suspects” in the traditional news media about having to share the microphone, so to speak, when asking questions of the Governor and her team during the daily news briefings.
Folks such as Steve Ahlquist at UpriseRI have resisted pressure from Josh Block, Raimondo’s press secretary, to limit asking questions to every other day, arguing that other news outlets have several reporters asking questions, putting his one-person shop at a disadvantage.
As much as the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the health system and the economy, it is also disrupting the news biz: reporters who are accustomed to being seen as “the top guns,” reliable “experts” in interpreting the news, have now been forced to share the spotlight with others, challenging their own self-proclaimed hegemony.
The ability by the “others” to ask good questions, according to Ahlquist, is the real problem, he told ConvergenceRI. “I’m showing the world that establishment media isn’t serving them. This undermines them and makes them look bad.”
What readers and residents want, it seems, are accurate sources of in-depth, detailed reporting, helping them to navigate their lives through the current treacherous waters of the pandemic. It turns out that there is no “monopoly” on the ability to ask good questions and to provide accurate reporting.

PROVIDENCE – The messages were filled with “aspiration.” In a series of posts on Twitter on Thursday, April 16, and Friday, April 17, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza wrote about Providence being a “city that cares for the wellbeing of all neighbors.”

“Even when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, our local businesses continue to find new and inspirational ways to help keep our community healthy and safe,” Elorza wrote in his first message. “Physical doors may be shut, but Providence is still open for business.”

In his second message, Elorza wrote: “I have seen neighbors and business owners step up in inspiring ways to protect the most vulnerable among us.” He urged residents to share or submit acts of kindness they have experienced or witnessed to a new “kindness portal” created by the city.

In each of the messages, Elorza closed with a prayerful vision: “We are all in this together and, although times are tough, our city will emerge stronger than ever.”

The “impertinent questions” to ask, in the best tradition of Studs Terkel, were: Who was the intended audience? Were the messages being heard?

These days, when many of us are leading lives of not-so-quiet desperation, the larger question to ask is: What was actually happening in the neighborhoods and communities most at risk in Providence, to those most vulnerable to the daily consequences of economic and health disparities in a time of pandemic?

The power of the press
In a recent interview with the leadership of The Providence Community Health Centers, “Connecting primary care to emergency care in a pandemic,” ConvergenceRI had sought to give voice to those who are often unseen and unheard in the news coverage on the front lines of the pandemic – the patients and doctors, nurses, and health care workers at community health centers. [See link below to the story.]

One of the health care workers at The Providence Community Health Centers wrote an email to Dr. Andrew Saal, the chief medical officer, after reading the story, sharing her emotional, heart-felt response. She gave her permission to republish an excerpt:

“What a powerful article! I am so pleased to see that the reporter brought [into] the light the topic of health disparities. I couldn’t stop crying when reading this article. I had many mixed emotions of gratitude for all the blessings in my life. However, I also feel the pain of [our] immigrant community, especially those who are undocumented.”

The health care worker continued: “There is a lot of suffering in this community. Can you imagine yourself losing your job, afraid of seeking care even when you are having the COVID-19 symptoms [because you don’t have the money to pay the bill, or afraid of immigration]? And, not having [any] hope of expecting that federal check in your mail or unemployment benefits, with no food to feed your children because you don’t know where to go or no means to go there?”

Further, the health care worker said: “I am hoping that PCHC continues reaching out to the most vulnerable and also get to every one of these undocumented immigrant families. We need somehow to alleviate some of their pain since we are, for many, their only hope… And I keep crying.”

Some local news outlets kvell when their graphs and charts become visible on one of the national cable news shows as a testament to the “value” and importance of their work. For ConvergenceRI, the heart-felt letter from the health care worker served as a reminder that the greatest good we can do as journalists is not just to share our “knowledge and expertise” in a conversation with others, but instead, to allow people’s own voices to be heard.

[Editor's Note: Even Gov. Raimondo and her team seem to be paying attention. At her daily news briefing on Sunday, April 19, the Governor announced the opening of a new walk-in, drive-in testing site in collaboration with The Providence Community Health Centers.]

Can you spell vulnerable?

This week, in a similar effort, ConvergenceRI reached out to ONE Neighborhood Builders, a community development corporation headquartered in Olneyville, which serves as the backbone agency coordinating efforts with the city’s local Health Equity Zones.

In a world where we are all sheltering in place, trying to stay safe, dealing with the fact that the coronavirus does not discriminate, it is an equal opportunity ambusher, what is actually happening in vulnerable city neighborhoods often occurs outside the narrow lens aperture of most news-gathering organizations in Rhode Island.

Under the leadership of Jennifer Hawkins, ONE Neighborhood Builders has proven to be an innovative force of economic vitality, health, education, and housing stability. From revitalizing and restoring abandoned properties, to building affordable net zero “small homes, and to translating economic sustainability into the major focus of her organization’s work around health equity, Hawkins has demonstrated a capability to make things happen and to get things done, often through partnerships and collaborations. [See links below to ConvergenceRI stories.]

Hawkins, demurring from being in the spotlight, suggested instead that I interview Laurie Moïse, the director of Community Health Integration at ONE Neighborhood Builders. Here is the interview:

ConvergenceRI: How has the work for the community health worker team at ONE Neighborhood Builders shifted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic?
Our Central Providence Health Equity community health workers have now transitioned to virtual ongoing services and COVID-19 responses. Residents can connect with community health workers via telephone and email only.

We have not held meetings in person and/or held home visits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this pandemic, community health workers are focused on the immediate needs of the residents they serve while navigating tough cases.

ConvergenceRI: What are the most pressing concerns of residents? How are they communicating with you to share them?
The most pressing concerns are immediate monetary aid to pay bills and food resources. Many residents report not being able to afford enough food due to reduced work hours and not having transportation to get food.

Thankfully, we partner with various organizations to ensure our residents are able to obtain the food they need. The Federal Hill House food pantry has been a huge aid in addressing the food disparities in our neighborhood.

Those who are not eligible for government aid are also in need of monetary funding, primarily those who are undocumented. We have been connecting residents with the resources and services that are available at this time – as well as connecting frequently with local organizations to address the current needs of our community.

ConvergenceRI: If you could direct a news team to cover what is happening in your neighborhoods, what would you want them to over?
I would request the news team to cover the hard-working community members in our neighborhoods who are supporting each other through this crisis.

Our community health workers or food pantry employees and volunteers, those who are working in grocery stores, in order to meet the needs of our residents.

There have been many individuals who have stepped up and have supported their neighbors – whether it has been through delivering meals or volunteering to call seniors who are in isolation, it’s very uplifting to see our communities come together.

I would also like to cover the work that our local elementary school is doing as well. The William D’Abate School in Olneyville is also a Providence Public Schools District food distribution site during this time. The dedication of the staff there is amazing; the staff has been such a strong partner.

ONE Neighborhood Builders, in partnership with the Governor’s April Reading Challenge, was able to donate three boxes of donated books to the families who are utilizing the food distribution sites.

During this time, our educators and out-of-school time programmers have been leading the way for virtual learning and ensuring this process is smooth for our families in our neighborhoods. Seeing our community work together in this way is not only uplifting, it brings hope for the future.

I would also ask for coverage on the gaps that need to be addressed and how attentive the R.I. Department of Health has been to respond to the needs of our communities. We have communicated with the agency weekly, checking in with Health Equity Zones across the state – this has been extremely helpful in navigating this uncertain time.

Having their support in navigating our concerns and questions has been helpful. Right now our community members need resources and being able to voice those needs and the gaps in resources has been successful.

ConvergenceRI: Is access to testing a major concern? Is being able to buy groceries a major concern?
Buying groceries has been a major concern for our community members. We have many residents who need food options at a lower cost. Transportation has also been an issue. Some community members do not have reliable transportation and/or worry about leaving their homes at this time of the pandemic.

ConvergenceRI: How have the efforts of the local Health Equity Zone shifted in response to the pandemic?
Our Central Providence Health Equity Zone (CP-HEZ) has gone virtual with our projects. Specifically, for the CP-HEZ we have held virtual collaborative meetings to connect with more than 25 community partners around the needs of the organizations and community members they engage with.

We’ve created an internal “resources” document to help in organizing and supporting our local organizations and their client needs. For example, if an organization is in need of volunteers, this internal communications document allows for this opportunity to be shared collaborative-wide.

We have been in close touch with other Health Equity Zones across the state. Being connected with other HEZs has allowed us to navigate tricky situations as we have all shifted to crisis response. We have had to postpone many events and trainings during this time but have been working closely, virtually, in order to address immediate needs and fill gaps in services when necessary.

ConvergenceRI: What has been the experience of ONE Neighborhood Builders transitioning to working through virtual online platforms?
ONE Neighborhood Builders has shifted to working remotely as much as possible. We have shifted to using all of our online platforms to connect with the community.

Aside from having an avenue for resource sharing internally, we have bolstered our Facebook presence by sharing resources with residents and important Census 2020 campaigning.

We have held Facebook Live events with performances from various artists to promote the Census 2020 and its importance.

Our Community Health Worker team is calling residents and tenants weekly to check in around needs and ways to support residents through this crisis.

Along with mailings going to our neighbors, we are working on having a strong social media presence to connect as many community members as we can.

We are also adapting a texting and calling application in order to connect with our community members directly.

Lastly, we’ve been promoting and sharing resources through Spanish radio by way of our resident engagement manager, in hopes to connect with as many people as we can.

ConvergenceRI: What kind of data is being collected to help with identifying shifting needs?
Currently we are tracking all COVID-19 related calls in order to identify the needs of our community.

We have also established a CP-HEZ COVID-19 “resident survey” that we’ve promoted to our community members and partner organizations.

This short survey is virtual in both English and Spanish; it asks residents questions about their current state and what resources and services are most needed during this time.

We know our community members are overwhelmed and uncertain of the future. Being able to communicate directly or online allows us to share important information for our residents and share resources that may be of great help.

ConvergenceRI: What questions haven’t I asked that you would like talk about?
I’d like to shed light on our communities who may not have documentation. Being undocumented creates many barriers to services that are needed at this time. Whether it be monetary or health, it may get in the way of needs being addressed.

Luckily, our community members and community organizations are in an “all hands on deck” mode and have been heavily involved in volunteering to address the needs of our community members.

What the Governor said
Knowing that this interview was in the works, ConvergenceRI, with its one “allotted” question to be asked every two days at the daily news briefing conducted by Gov. Gina Raimondo, decided to ask: Have you been in contact with community development corporations such as ONE Neighborhood Builders and West Elmwood to ask what the most critical needs are for the vulnerable neighborhoods and residents they serve?

In response, instead of directly answering the question, Gov. Raimondo, suggested that I reach out to Commerce RI with any information that I may have. [Note to Margie O’Brien: my last name is pronounced: Ace-in-off.]

What occurred was, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion, somewhat remarkable. It had now become ConvergenceRI’s responsibility, as a news gathering operation, to provide information to the Governor and her team about what was happening on the ground, to illuminate for them the work being done by a community development agency focused on affordable housing, economic opportunity and health equity.

Of course, I am more than happy to do so; it’s easy. All that has to happen is for Gov. Gina Raimondo, her top communications aide Jennifer Bogdan, her press secretary Josh Block, and the R.I. Department of Administration Director Brett Smiley to start reading, sharing and retweeting the content in ConvergenceRI as a crucial step forward toward in learning more about community engagement.

Editor's Note: A New York Times story, "How Millions of Women Became the Most Essential Workers in America," published on April 18, underscores the invisible nature not just of vulnerable communities but of workers. "From the cashier to the emergency room nurse to the drugstore pharmacist to the home health aide taking the bus to check on her older client, the soldier on the front lines of the current national emergency is most likely a woman."

One in three jobs held by women has been designated as essential, according to the reporting. " Nonwhite women are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anyone else," the analysis found. "The work they do has often been underpaid and undervalued — an unseen labor force that keeps the country running and takes care of those most in need, whether or not there is a pandemic."

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