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Minority Health: April 2022 was Minority Health Month

In honor of Minority Health Month, we're introduced you to some of the people who are making a difference in the health and well-being of residents in Wisconsin communities of color.

Meet Vera Heubel

Vera Heubel is a Community Health Nurse for the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians.

She says being in and part of a tribal community is like being in a large extended family. There are times when people don’t get along but you always know they have your back when it comes down to it. We have many ways of healing and that doesn’t always come out of a medical office or textbook.

What inspired you to do the work you do?
I have always wanted to work with native communities and I believe providing prevention strategies and education can be pivotal in helping others to change their behaviors and life path. I became a nurse because I truly care and want to help others toward wellness. I feel that outreach and prevention are key to improving generations, not just individuals.
What made you choose work with a focus on public health or equity?
Being Native American, I have always been aware of the health inequalities within our tribal communities. There are so many factors that drive health and well-being, I don’t feel this is well understood at the public level. I want our people to have an equal chance at health and wellness.
What have the events of the last year taught you?
Oh Boy! If anything, this last year and throughout the whole COVID experience has taught me to be flexible—flexible not only in my job and work responsibilities, but also in my thinking and acceptance of change.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your life? How did you overcome those challenges?
Well like many people, I have experienced personal loss in my family and those close to me, accepting this as part of life has been key in dealing with that. I faced difficulties and discrimination in many ways along this journey of life, but I constantly remember my ancestors. The road they walked allows me to be where I am now and I am grateful.
What does your community need to be healthy?
I think my community, like any other, needs knowledge and empowerment to make change. I honestly feel that people will try to do what’s best for themselves and their community if the are inspired to do so. I think in tribal communities, reclaiming culture is a big part of reclaiming our wholeness.
What advice would you give to anyone hoping to make a difference?
Hang in there and don’t give up. Even when it doesn’t feel that you are moving the needle, you may be reaching that one person and giving them what they need to make a change. You may be changing that one person who can lead community change.

Click on a person's name below to learn how they are making a difference in their community.

Maria Chay is a community health worker on a mission.

What inspired you to do the work you do?
I was inspired by seeing the difficulty faced by the community that I am surrounded by, which is the Karenni and Burmese Community. Their difficulties have instilled in me courage and passion for being an aid to others and being a support for those who lack the support needed.
What made you choose work with a focus on public health or equity?
A focus on public health was important for me because I have realized that the Karenni Community is at a disadvantage along with the whole Southeast Asian community. After having been aided in preventative measures, a community member became a cancer survivor. Having experienced the smiles from the community and their family, it has pushed me to continue down this path of focusing on public health.
What have the events of the last year taught you?
The events of last year with the pandemic taught me that life is short and that unpredictable events could happen to change the course on the path of life that we had already planned. That there is also the fact that the time spent with individuals around me can be cut short at any time due to unexpected events. As such, I believe that and affirm that, the work that I and other community health care workers do matters because through preventative measures, such as screenings and health education, we can save lives and continue helping others live life to the fullest.
What does your community need to be healthy?
For my community to be healthy, there needs to be an increase in dietary education, development of trust of modern medicine and health care workers, and an increase in awareness on health and what being clinically healthy means. Dietary education should include details revolving around fast food, alcohol, and the different diets currently available. Health education should also include information on leading a healthy lifestyle as a low-income individual or middle-class individual.
What advice would you give to anyone hoping to make a difference?
Your action matters, no matter how small it may seem. There will be times when making a change will be hard on yourself and on those around you. But I believe that if your faith and values are still aligned with the bigger picture of making a difference, it will be worth it as you will be able to see the smiles and joys of the individuals that you are making a change for. So, take the first step, start an initiative, and aim to follow through while setting goals for yourself and hit them so that you do not get discouraged. One person won’t be able to change the world, but together, we can make a difference and help each other and support each other.

Marvin Jones Jr. is chef for Healthy Eating Active Living Milwaukee.

Healthy Eating Active Living Milwaukee is a program that aims to provide education and resources to secure healthy foods and active living supports for adults at-risk for developing lifestyle-related diseases.

What inspired you to become a chef?
My dad cooked. It was not his profession, but he enjoyed cooking and that piqued my curiosity so I applied myself and discovered I had a talent for it. Let me also say that it was a long time—a very long time— before I discovered that this talent was a gift from God, that wasn’t about me, that didn’t belong to me. And it was this discovery that changed everything.
What made you choose work with a focus on public health or equity?
Of course there’s much more to this answer, but basically, I connected to groups and organizations whose intent was in the right place. So instead of coming in as heroes and saviors, which in essence is an insult, we let the participants see our scars and that we’re here to come up with solutions together, and execute them.
What have the events of the last year taught you?
These past few years have taught me that we actually need each other. And to drive home the point that we are not alone. If I don’t have the answer, I know someone who knows someone else who does.
What does your community need to be healthy?
Our community needs what it has always needed… Access! If you want to measure in degrees, sure, things are better, but the pandemic has magnified the fact that we are still separate and unequal.
What advice would you give to anyone hoping to make a difference?
To be sure of your intent. Start where you are! And follow your heart.

Bruce Moore works for the Madison Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital as a registered nurse. 

What inspired you to do the work you do?
My brother was a veteran and I’d bring him to the VA for care. I discovered I really enjoyed interacting with veterans. That’s when I decided I wanted to work with veterans. I wanted to be able to contribute to assisting with care and advocating for veterans. I wanted to be a part of a group that strives to educate and empower veterans to increase their knowledge and involvement in their care and relationships with their providers. I think of it as nurses integrating mental health skills and health coaching into patient care. I find it very gratifying.
What made you choose to work with a focus on public health or equity?
Working with veterans is an opportunity to be proactive and give back to my community—in my case, our veterans. I find contributing to helping our veterans prioritize, create plans, and achieve their health care goals is very rewarding. I tell him or her they are the quarterback and his or her health care team is the supporting cast. We provide education, knowledge, and wisdom but when they score related to their health care goals, we all score! I love the whole health team aspect related to health care!
Related to equity: I‘ve observed over the years that there were not many nurses or providers of color here at the VA hospital and its local clinics. I’ve experienced situations where providers occasionally had difficulty relating to my health care needs because of cultural differences or how they viewed me as a man of color and parent of color. It motivated me to strive to help veterans work through difficulties and become empowered related to their health care, especially veterans of color.
What have the events of the last year taught you?
COVID nursing for veterans and staff reinforced the fact that in difficult times we display the desire, motivation, and capacity to set aside differences and work so incredibly well together to accomplish so much that at times I was in awe! The downside is afterwards, at times it’s difficult for management to inspire and lead staff related to maintaining those same motivating factors on a consistent basis related to diversity, equity, and inclusion even though we know it’s possible, because we proved it during urgent and emergency situations. I believe change is possible, but it takes community effort on a consistent basis and leaders have to choose to lead and live by example.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your life? How did you overcome those challenges?
Being a proactive single dad of a daughter of color: Being a single dad of color has at times been challenging, but is a completely awesome journey with many adventures. I’ve been able to nurture and encourage my daughter and assist her with working through various situations where we were the only parent and child of color. Places like preschool, elementary school, summer classes, medical appointments, and girl scouts, were initially uncomfortable situations. I taught her coping, communications and self-esteem building skills. When she became confident with her skills, she decided to share her skills with other girls and girls of color and started an empowerment business for girls. I enjoy watching her grow. We also belong to a wonderful group of supportive and nurturing women of color, known as the Wisconsin Women of Color Network!
Being a nurse of color: Sometimes it’s difficult being the only one who looks like you in your career for years. Sometimes going to nursing classes and working as a nurse was difficult for various reasons. Sometimes you just put on your emotional body armor and just do it. You learn that you still have to work harder than others just to be able to do a job you love. I taught myself better coping, communication, and interacting skills, and increased my level of confidence by practicing my skills over and over again, until I felt confident enough to patiently train and mentor others.
Not seeing many other nurses of color at my workplace: I recently joined the VA Madison’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Group. In that group, I discussed issues with interviewing, recruiting, hiring and opportunities for advancement for people of color and discussed previous patterns of behavior people of color have experienced over the years. I have suggested methods of improvement and have noticed at least two solutions being implemented recently. I hope to see more being implemented for 2022-2023.
What does your community need to be healthy?
Simple community-based education on general health, and mental health. Education related to access to health care, empowerment, and relationship building for providers, and clients starting with adolescents. This has the capacity to improve patient-provider relationships which can potentially increase the quality of care and patient education related to self-care.
What advice would you give to anyone hoping to make a difference?
Explore different areas, talk to others and find something that contributes to your community that you like or can see yourself becoming passionate about.

Afeefah Khan is part of the Health Equity Assessment and Resource Team (HEART) at DHS

What inspired you to do the work that you do?
I always knew I was passionate about health and helping others, and growing up I thought the only way to do that was to become a doctor. When I started learning more about public health, I learned that health is not just about biology but also affected by social determinants of health. I connected that to many of the inequities I had seen growing up, and how the way I lived was so different than people in neighboring cities. I see public health as being a way to make bigger changes on a population level with social justice at its core, and it’s not just about improving people’s health but improving people’s lives overall.
What have events of the last year taught you?
Empathy and unity are key values of public health work. COVID-19 definitely has brought out and exacerbated inequities that have already existed, and it showed that working together is important now more than ever—not just for people who share the same identity as me, but for all people facing inequities and injustices. The work I do now is also about utilizing the increased awareness around public health and health equity from this pandemic to support more efforts to address health inequities.
What have been the biggest challenges you've faced in your life? How did you overcome those challenges?
There’s a lot of negative media and media bias around people who look like me. That discrimination can affect the way people perceive me and affect my own esteem, perception, and confidence. From empowerment and support both inside and outside my community, I learned to be confident in my Muslim, South Asian American identity while pursuing my goals. I reflect that same support through my work in health equity, including lifting the voices of people who face greater challenges and inequities, yet haven’t received the support they want and need—both in the U.S. and abroad.
What does your community need to be healthy?
Recognizing that Islamophobia is a public health issue, the intersections of our other identities can exacerbate inequities already being faced. There needs to be more research specific to the health of Muslims, South Asians, and other racial and ethnic minorities. With more accurate data and resources, there also needs to be collective and culturally relevant approaches for the public health efforts being made.
What does your community need to address racism in today’s society?
I believe addressing racism starts with self-reflection—recognizing our own biases, addressing racism within our own community, and constantly educating ourselves. If we recognize our own privileges that we hold, even as minorities, we can use that power to address racism not just people of our own identity, but everyone facing inequities and injustices.
Tell me what advice you would give to anyone hoping to make a difference?
Going in with the right intention is the most important thing, because that it was keeps you going when the work gets tough. I’m still early in my public health career, but I’ve already learned that you can’t be selfish in this type of work. Sometimes there are a lot of obstacles to get through and the positive results are invisible. Change takes time, but one small step can create a positive domino effect. You may not see the fruits of your work now, but the effects will last past our lifetime and for the next generations.

Isaak Mohamed is a Somali Liaison and Community Health Worker in Barron County.

He is also a member of the Governor's Health Equity Council.

What inspired you to do the work you do?
It is my passion to help my community. I am trying to improve the lives of minorities in Barron County so that they know where they can get resources. Sometimes I feel that they are disconnected, and I want them to be connected to the available resources in our state. The simple answer is “My people need it and I want to be their voice and create health equity awareness.”

What made you choose work with a focus on public health or equity?
Well, there are health disparities issues in our community, and I want to be the educator of my community so that they know what their rights and services are, and what they are eligible for. I have seen the health concerns and the needs of my community. Most of our people don’t know where to go when they need help, and they are not familiar with health programs and services that are offered in our state. I am glad that Governor Evers and his administration created the Health Equity Council to reach Wisconsinites and address their health concerns.
What have the events of the last year taught you?
I am a man of faith, and I believe we take everything for granted, but the events of last year taught us that we can lose everything within the blink of an eye. So, we need to be grateful for what God has given us and we also need to take care of our planet and help each other in order to live for a better world for generations to come. We also need to be proactive so that we are prepared to fight against unknown harmful diseases.
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced in your life? How did you overcome those challenges?
My biggest challenge has been getting people the information they need. They are misinformed from social media and believing what they hear while not trusting the health care system.
Another big challenge I have faced has been the language barrier. I dedicated a lot of time to learning English as my second language, and I believe this is a challenge for all immigrants coming to America.
What does your community need to be healthy?
To help provide health awareness in the community from someone who is knowledgeable of the community!
What advice would you give to anyone hoping to make a difference?
I would advise anyone hoping to make a difference to be patient and to advocate for those in the community. It is also important to respect the culture and their environment.

Po Too works as a community health worker with Aurora Walker’s Point Community Clinic.

Aurora Walker's Point Community Clinic offers a wide range of services for children and adults of all ages. Po is originally from Myanmar, formally known as Burma. In 1997, Po's family and the people in her village were forced to leave their home because of war. She spent the next nine years in a refugee camp in Thailand. In 2006, Po's family resettled in Lake Geneva. Po's church sponsor helped her family transition to a new home, taught them the English language and Wisconsin lifestyle, and connected them with other services around the community.

We profiled Po Too last year. This year, she gives us an update on how she has fared during the past 12 months.

Now that it appears that we are beginning to come out of the pandemic, what has this experience taught you about the community you serve? About yourself?
This pandemic has been a struggle for some many people, especially new refugees who came to this country. Along with worldwide health concerns about COVID-19, some refugee families are experiencing social, financial, and academic challenges during the pandemic. Imagine moving to a new country with restrictions and limited social interactions to identify the right resources to seek support for your family’s current health concerns. It has helped me, as well as others, to recognize the importance of self-care as the current and new arrivals really need us to be at our best to serve them.
What events this past year have impacted your work life? In what ways?
My experience this past year has been an improvement from when I was starting in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic. Within the first few months, I remembered how all my training and responsibilities were done virtually. Within the past year, a lot of changes occurred as our interactions with refugees can now include in-person service while exercising universal health precautions. It gives refugees a better experience when we are able to help them in-person.

Nathaniel Chin is Associate Director of the Geriatric Memory Program for University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics.

Chin is also Assistant Professor (CHS) of the University of Wisconsin Department of Medicine's Geriatric Division, Medical Director and Clinical Core Co-Leader of the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Disease Research Center (ADRC), and Medical Director of the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer's Prevention (WRAP) Study

What inspired you to become a physician?
My father was a small-town family physician. He delivered babies, cared for children and adults in clinic, saw his patients in the hospital and served as the medical director of many of the nursing homes. He was a great role model and showed me the importance of caring for people in need. When I was older, I enjoyed learning how the human body functioned and what was happening in illness. I wanted to use that knowledge and interest in helping people feel better.
What made you choose work with a focus on public health or equity?
I became a geriatrician and researcher specializing in Alzheimer's disease because of my family experience. However, as I started caring for patients in clinic and learning more about the disease in our research program, it became quite clear that dementia was a public health issue requiring awareness, education, and improved community care. Additionally, the social determinants of health have a great influence on a person's brain health, which means certain groups of people are at higher risk, not simply because of genetics or choices, but because of external societal factors. I've made it a priority to address the stigma of dementia and raise awareness of these social determinants of health in hopes that people gain access to the information, care, and support they need.
What have the events of the last year taught you?
Addressing our mental health is critical to wellbeing and brain health. We, as a society, must push past the stigma of mental health (and cognitive impairment) and talk openly about it and seek help. We must be intentional in addressing our mental health, not just with medications, but with how we live our lives. Our research and clinical programs speak of six brain health pillars: exercise, healthy foods, restorative sleep, stress reduction, social engagement, and cognitive engagement. These lifestyle habits build resilience, particularly during difficult times like the pandemic, but also lead to improved wellbeing and mental health. There is a lot in life we cannot control, like the presence of COVID-19, but there is also a lot in our own lives we can control. How we choose to live our days and expend our energy is up to us. I learned to invest in a healthy version of me and help others to do the same.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your life? How did you overcome those challenges?
My father's diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease at the young age of 61 was devastating. My wife and I wanted to be present for my father and mother; however, we had established a new life in San Diego. In the end, we made the decision to move home for family and started a new life here. We are grateful for that decision and for the additional time spent with my father. We forged new meaningful careers here and have established roots in this wonderful community. We were able to do this because of family, focusing on our priorities and accepting that we cannot control everything in life.
What does your community need to be healthy?
Communities, like individuals, need information and support. Education on health and wellbeing is needed. The education could come from within the community by individuals with that knowledge, but also by health care providers, community organizations and the UW system. Regarding support, systems and policies need to be in place so people have access to the resources that improve lives. Resources include healthy foods, medical care, safe neighborhoods, open spaces, etc. Communities also need open communication where people in that community can talk openly about needs, issues, and potential solutions.
What advice would you give to anyone hoping to make a difference?
I believe the most important thing one can do to make a difference is to show up. Be present, physically and mentally, in your pursuit. Just by showing up and showing you care you are making a small difference. That action is amplified with everything else you do. Secondly, don't do it alone. Find others to help or join others already in the pursuit. You'll be more successful together and you'll enjoy the process more by being with those people.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
As a biracial person growing up in Wisconsin I've felt like a minority in many ways. I never really felt "at home" outside of my own actual family house. It wasn't until my internal medicine residency I learned the power of community and belonging, particularly as a person of color. I realized then the value of a shared experience, not as an Asian-European American, but as someone minoritized. Connecting with others and pursuing equity, be it race, ethnicity, age, gender identity, cognitive ability, etc, in healthcare and aging research has been incredibly rewarding and motivating. I'm thankful to all those who continue to educate me and challenge my perceptions.

Sebastian Ssempijja has been co-owner and clinic director of Sebastian Family Psychology Practice for more than 28 years.

In addition, Ssempijja also provides direct clinical care, teaches, and trains new providers coming to the behavioral healthcare workforce. He also provides consultation and support to many community-based organizations who serve the behavioral health needs of families and children in Metropolitan Milwaukee, and across Wisconsin.

He serves in different roles as a co-leader in various collaborations and partnerships that include Milwaukee Public Schools, Office of Refugee Resettlement, and extensive local and global mental health collaborations and partnerships.

We profiled Sebastian last year. This year, he gives us an update on how he and his practice have fared during the past 12 months.

Now that it appears that we are beginning to come out of the pandemic, what has this experience taught you about the community you serve? About yourself?
We all eagerly await the passing to be real and lasting. The pandemic has been a bruising experience to most of us, but even more so to the communities that we serve. Credible and lasting relief could not come sooner, and it enables us to have hope for a new normal. The course of the pandemic has taught us that the communities we serve, whom we inadvertently refer to as vulnerable, remain resilient, creative, and resourceful. This also includes diversity in sharing the little that they have with others. The gift of human kindness in the midst of tragedy is still alive and well. We have also seen the sad reality of intimate partner violence made worse by forced lock downs. The brutal reality of living with reduced economic resources, and the hardships that come along with that, has also left many hurting. As we look ahead, the concept of looking at planning for protecting vulnerable communities from severe adversity should be seen as a public health concern. As mental health experts, this also becomes a public mental health concern.
What events this past year have impacted your work life? In what ways?
The primary event has been the necessity to collaborate and work with our team by leveraging talent and capacity in covering the needs of so many patients at an adequate juncture in our role as public health servants. This has required us to be present to our staff to ensure that they are strong and steady, so they can in turn be similarly helpful to the public. Secondly, the aspect of massive loss of life and injury to health and well-being has been awful to watch, and this memory should never be taken casually. Remaining vigilant to the values of practicing kindness, compassion, empathy, and purposeful social outreach to others truly tested the lessons we have learned. Finally, the intention to seek and find humor in how we cope is a gift to me from our staff, clients, and community partners with whom we serve. This is most explicit in our educators, both in public and private sectors, our front-line clinical providers, and many other first responders.

Cheri Nemec is WIC Program Director, Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, Inc.

What inspired you to do the work that you do?
I started out working in the area of nutrition education and WIC. Breastfeeding very quickly rose as a priority. A few years ago, I was noticing a trend of families coming to WIC having been advised by family or medical professionals to stop breastfeeding for reasons, such as weight loss after delivery, jaundice, or another perceived issue. These were families that had expressed strong interest and goals related to breastfeeding or had breastfed in the past. It was disheartening to see families be resigned to not providing breastmilk to their infants. It showed that we had a gap in the access to education and support in our more rural tribal communities. This led us to create a coalition of tribes in Wisconsin to address this issue and find solutions and address the issue of breastfeeding duration.

What have events of the last year taught you?
In the past year I have noticed the value of connecting with others, both professional and personally. We have been offering education sessions that serve as a way for prenatal/postpartum/breastfeeding families to share their experiences, ask questions, and offer advice. These connections for families have been exciting to watch. We have also made invaluable professional connections across tribes. Specifically, the Maternal Child Health staff have been able to share their unique talents and knowledge with each other, at times boosting support for smaller tribes.
What have been the biggest challenges you've faced in your life? How did you overcome those challenges?
The biggest challenge I have faced within my work is an introverted personality. We were raised to honor the sacred teachings, including humility and respect. This meant not seeking the spotlight and listening more than you speak. This can often be misinterpreted as lack of interest or enthusiasm. I have found a balance in the need to promote the work we are doing to be a voice for the first food movement. Stepping up to lead an initiative allows me to give space to all of our members to voice their opinions and share their talents and ideas.
What does your community need?
One of the needs we have tried to address with the Native Breastfeeding Coalition of Wisconsin is education, materials, images and methods that reflect our traditions and culture. To meet that need, we have worked to create materials with Native images and have supported training of community members to be Indigenous Breastfeeding Counselors. We continue to seek ways of showing that breastfeeding is our tradition.
Tell me what advice you would give to anyone hoping to make a difference?
I have noticed with working with the Native Breastfeeding Coalition that everyone has something to contribute. Someone may not be comfortable providing an education session but is talented at graphic design.

Janan Najeeb is President of the Milwaukee Muslim Women's Coalition

What inspired you to do the work that you do?
Prior to launching Our Peaceful Home Project, a culturally specific family strengthening and domestic abuse program, the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition (MMWC) was known for promoting cultural understanding through outreach, advocating for women, working for social justice, and creating educational programs.
This journey began about 28 years ago when a group of Muslim women would gather for a Sunday study and discussion group. All of us were professional women, yet we had similar stories involving stereotypes and even harassment on the job due to our faith and particularly our clothing. We felt that we could dispel stereotypes by engaging people so we began a speaker’s bureau. We reached out to women’s groups, schools, and faith institutions, and soon we were receiving a steady stream of requests.
This eventually blossomed into an independent, busy 501c3 organization and we were receiving more requests than we could fulfill. I personally have delivered over 2000 presentations in the last 28 years. The work expanded to include job training for women, advocacy in a variety of areas, mentoring for women and girls and lots of outreach. We were conducting, as well as participating in, seminars, lectures, exhibitions, panel discussions and so much more.
When I decided to launch Our Peaceful Home, we had been seeing a great increase in the immigrant and refugee population from predominantly Muslim countries. We also noticed that there was not a culturally informed agency that had the capacity to address the issues taking place. When there was family strife, the women were going to religious leaders, but they were not trained to handle domestic violence and trauma. Furthermore, I had spent years doing culturally informed training for hospitals, domestic violence agencies, schools, and businesses and I felt as an organization, we were very qualified to take this on.
The MMWC as an organization also runs a cultural center and library, publishes the Wisconsin Muslim Journal, runs the Milwaukee Muslim Film Festival at the Oriental Theater, runs youth leadership programs, as well as children’s reading programs. We also take on new and innovative projects every year.
Last year, with generous support from the Department of Health Services, we hosted the first two-day Mental Health Conference in Wisconsin with the purpose of training behavioral health experts on working with Muslim clients. We also received funding for culturally specific education and outreach regarding COVID vaccines. We also mobilized many community organizations and did a tremendous amount of work to help the Afghan evacuees in Fort McCoy.
When I am asked what inspired me to do this work, I have always said this is not work, it is a passion. Bringing people together through understanding and building community, working for human dignity and social justice, trying to make a difference every day, this helps me sleep well at night. Helping individuals, especially those who are marginalized and/or oppressed is a no brainer, I don’t see any other options.
What have events of the last year taught you?
How fragile and fleeting life is, how we are intensely social creatures and need to be together. How accuracy in information and words truly matter, and how in spite of our progress in the areas of racial justice and equity, we still have a very long way to go.
I have also realized that bringing about positive change and justice is not just government work or the work of leaders, it is a responsibility that each and every one of us must shoulder.
What have been the biggest challenges you've faced in your life? How did you overcome those challenges?
I would probably identify two major challenges in my life:
I was born in Jerusalem to a Palestinian family and I came to the US as a three-year-old child. From my very earliest memory as a child, I don’t recall a time that my parents were not in fear for relatives and friends living under Israeli occupation. This was a constant in my life. It also took many years for me to really understand the difference of being an immigrant by choice versus being an immigrant because you were not allowed to go home.
I have five grown children at this time. The second challenge was the birth of my second child. He was born with a congenital problem that led to physical disabilities. I went through all of the stages of mourning before acceptance. I truly felt that God would not have given me this responsibility if I was not up to the challenge. It was never easy, but I never gave up on him. This young man graduated from high school with honors and went on to graduate from UW-Whitewater. His presence in our family has had a positive impact on each one of us, something that only families with a special needs child can truly understand.
What does your community need to address racism in today’s society.
Xenophobia and Islamophobia are real, and acts of racism against the Muslim community are well documented. The Muslim community needs to see zero tolerance when it comes to comments, statements, or acts of violence directed towards it. That means at the government level, schools, and places of employment. It means that there should be required training in schools and clear consequences when Islamophobic acts take place.
In addition, many in the Muslim community need to be made aware of the options available to them. California public schools surveyed Muslim students and found more than 50% endured bullying due to their faith on a regular basis. I believe the rate is similar in Wisconsin. More significant efforts should take place to address this issue.
Acts of Islamophobia jump after an international incident or a political comment aimed at stirring up animosity for political purposes. Education to address these on a regular basis is critical.
Tell me what advice you would give to anyone hoping to make a difference?
This is an inner drive that makes you jump out of bed every day because you know there are important things that need to be done. The well-known secret of activists is that they receive far more than they give. The sense of well-being when helping others cannot be measured.
When things don’t turn out as you expected or you are not seeing the results you hoped for, you need to have the courage to admit it and go back to the drawing table and strategize and start from scratch if you have to. Learn from everyone, especially the people you are serving.
I would tell anyone that asks, there is absolutely no salary in the world that can give you the satisfaction you get when you know you have changed someone’s life for the better or your work has brought about positive change.
I am really thankful to DHS that there is greater effort to include minority and grassroots organizations when funding this type of work. It is a recognition of the important work being done and the culturally specific experiences and knowledge being brought to the table. All of us come out as winners.

Aaron G. Perry is CEO and founder of Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association in Madison.

What inspired you to do the work you do?
At the age of 29, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and living in Iowa. For more than two years, I followed the advice of my medical team, but my health wasn’t improving. I ultimately moved back to Wisconsin and established a relationship with a new medical team that consisted of an endocrinologist, diabetes educator, and nutritionist. I requested a thorough review of my health status and untimely learned that I was not a Type 2 diabetic, but I was actually a Type 1.5 insulin-dependent diabetic. I began a new regimen that required three insulin injections daily, and within one week I began to feel better. In 2005, I completed the world’s most grueling endurance event, the Ironman Triathlon, becoming the world's first and only insulin-dependent African-American diabetic to cross the finish line. Ultimately, this led me to become an advocate for Black men’s health by demanding more from the medical community.
What made you choose work with a focus on public health and equity?
Because of my advocacy for Black men’s health, I served on various medical committees and witnessed a serious disconnect from what was being prioritized and the realities of Black men’s lives in the community. I learned that the medical community was well intentioned but ill-informed about ways to engage Black men. In 2014, I opened the nation’s very first health and education center inside a Black barbershop, which serves as a bridge between the medical community and Black men and have since expanded to three Black barbershops. Bringing health care to locations where Black men frequent, trust, and respect has proved to be a best practice model for health care. In listening to the voices of Black men without insurance and without a medical home, I knew I could do more, so I built on the success of our men’s health and education centers, and on February 24, 2022, I opened the Perry Family Free Clinic, which provides primary health care to uninsured and under-insured Black men. This is the first free clinic for Black men in the United States. It provides a medical home for Black men, so they do not have to rely on the emergency room for their health care, nor do they have to live in fear of receiving another bill that they cannot afford.
What have the events of the last year taught you?
During a crisis, opportunities for change and growth are often overlooked for underserved and marginalized communities. The Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association (RLWA) remained focused on our core principles and mission of improving the health of Black men by simply checking in with Black men and asking them what was required to feel safe during a pandemic. Often the needs of Black men were at odds with policies and procedures. For example, offering stipends for free haircuts for Black men in exchange for vaccinations was previously not allowed with grant funding; however, we stayed the course, continuing to offer these stipends, and over 400 Black men were vaccinated. This policy was ultimately reversed and $100 were offered to the community in exchange for vaccinations. This past year has amplified what we’ve known all along—we need to think and act outside of how things are normally done.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your life? How did you overcome those challenges?
My biggest challenge this year was maintaining the trust our organization built with Black men during the past five years. The death of George Floyd challenged me as a health advocate, a Black man, and as a former police officer. I learned how to allow space for Black men to vent about my former profession, while maintaining a trust that took five years to build. I listen to the voices of many Black men, and I responded to their pain by hosting a 22-week Black Male Mental Health and Wellbeing virtual support group. The success of our 90-minute weekly support group reached Black men in over 18 different U.S. cities, as well as, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, Switzerland and Canada.
What does your community need to be healthy?
My focus is on Black men’s health, so that is what I will speak to. As a former police officer, I learned that you cannot arrest your way out of poverty and systematic and institutional oppression. Black men in every community must demand that our elected officials not only listen to their voices, but they need to hear our pain, and they need to take action with us.
What advice would you give to anyone hoping to make a difference?
My advice to anyone seeking to make a difference is to find a cause that they’re prepared to advocate for on a daily basis and something they’re passionate about improving. Make sure it’s a vision they can stay true to and not cut corners with.

Sheng Lee Yang is founder and Executive Director of Us 2 Behavioral Health Care in Appleton.

What inspired you to do the work that you do?
After working in human services for over a decade, it was concerning to see obvious disparities on how people were able to access mental health services, or lack thereof. As the saying goes, “where the mind goes the body follows.” Health disparities in Wisconsin has led to premature termination of services, extended hospitalizations, increased health issues, and unfortunately, death in many cases. Seeing the data of health inequalities in Wisconsin year after year and witnessing it manifested was what encouraged me to open Us 2 Behavioral Health Care, Inc. (Us2) in 2019. This answer is simple. The people of Wisconsin inspired me to do this work. If the premature death of people around us is not enough to inspire anyone to get out of being complacent then I am not sure what else can inspire us.
What have events of the last year taught you?
The events from COVID-19 and last year taught me that during difficult times, the truth comes out. COVID-19 exposed the truth about our infrastructures and where peoples’ mental health is at. As a community we have had repeated exposure to traumatic events, but I believe that with any traumatic event, there is an opportunity for healing—an opportunity for collective healing. This process will make us greater as a community. There is always a silver lining to everything.
What have been the biggest challenges you've faced in your life? How did you overcome those challenges?
One of the biggest challenges I have encountered is convincing a group of philanthropists why they should invest in the mission of Us2. During this time, I had minimal experience in nonprofit work and certainly no association with any philanthropists; or how to navigate the complex system. Additionally, it was unusual for grants to be made to startups and minoritized lead organizations. I knew the stakes were high and I needed a plan. My partner, who has 15 years in corporate and a background in global strategy, helped me overcome the challenge by leaving his career to support the mission of Us2. Although this was one of the most challenging experiences, it was also one of the most sobering and has paved the way to new relationships for me.
Tell me what advice you would give to anyone hoping to make a difference?
My advice would be to do it! Trying to make a difference can be extremely hard because it is both labor and psychologically intense, but being complacent is worse. One of my favorite quotes is from Martin Luther King Jr., “we often seek to promote, protect, and defend our way of life rather than engage in love for our brother, our neighbor, and even our enemy. If we benefit from the status quo, we can seek to maintain it rather than recognize that a wheel of injustice might be grinding our neighbor down.” I end with this quote because most people want to make a difference, but the “difference” may not be worth the battle. That is what we call privilege. The privilege to decide if justice towards health equity is worth it.

Ronnie Grace is Lead Coordinator with the Peer Navigation Program of Diverse & Resilient of Milwaukee
Justin Roby is Director of HIV Care for Diverse & Resilient of Milwaukee

Diverse & Resilient seeks to achieve health equity and improve safety and well-being of LGBTQ people and communities in Wisconsin.

Read more below about what inspired Ronnie and Justin to become leaders by advocating for and supporting marginalized members of their community.

 

Meet Ronnie

What inspired you to do the work that you do?
In 1998, after already living with HIV for 12 years, but still uneducated and in denial about my status, a case manager who had been assigned to me invited me to an HIV Task Force meeting at the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin. This was the first time that I had been in a space with other people living with HIV. Once I had attended a few meetings, I wanted to know more about the virus that had turned my whole world upside down. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
After attending several meetings, an opportunity to do HIV testing came my way. I seized the moment and applied for the position and was hired by Mrs. Carol Calvin at Comprehensive Health Education.
I started to share with my status with friends and family. To my surprise, people began to disclose their status to me and asked me to attend intake appointments with them to get in care. This was my first foray into helping peers navigate the system that I had found so overwhelming. I advocated for years for the development of a Peer Navigation Program because I knew how effective it would be for people who were at risk for falling out of, or who had already fallen out of, care. I observed that people would share with me more than they would with their providers because I was relatable. My passion to advocate for others was my inspiration and motivation to do the work that I currently do as Lead Coordinator for our Peer Navigation Program.
What have events of the last year taught you?
The events of the last year taught me how resilient I am and that life has few guarantees.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your life? How did you overcome those challenges?
My biggest challenges in life have been figuring out and navigating how to live a long healthy life after my AIDS diagnosis. Watching so many brilliant, loving, talented friends die from AIDS while thinking of my own demise put me on a journey to becoming an activist and advocate for others living with HIV. I overcame my challenges by deciding to not only live, but thrive while helping other navigate their journeys living with HIV. In 2008, I founded “Men of Color,” an Empowerment and Support Group for men living with HIV to provide a safe and brave space for men to support, and be supported by, other men living with HIV. In 2019, I changed the name to “GrownUps” to diversify and make people of all races feel included and supported.

Meet Justin

What does your community need to be healthy?
When we say "our community," we mean Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (QTBIPOC) individuals. For us to be healthy, we need a sense of belonging. We need agency in our care, support in our endeavors, and love from our family (chosen and otherwise). We are in need of allies who are bold and fearless so that we can find our footing within community. Fighting health disparities within the LGBTQ community means being knowledgeable about resources in areas you serve that are culturally competent, advocating for a systems level approach to ending health disparities, and addressing stigma around HIV.
What does your community need to address racism in today’s society?
Our community needs the system to acknowledge the visceral impact of racism. More so, Black queer men have been oppressed for being Black and for being queer. And in the intersection of that reality is the realistic brunt of the fight against HIV. A fight that should have been waged purely from a scientific standpoint has been staged on a moral platform and therefore mishandled. Even the dissonance between Madison and Milwaukee perpetuates and exacerbates health disparities. When the system makes racism a priority, then it will no longer be an issue for individuals on any level.
Tell me what advice you would give to anyone hoping to make a difference?
Change is incremental. Don't let slow progress, failure, or moments of being stalled be deterrents from your goal. Persistence is the key in making a difference within the community. The phrase "Rome wasn't built in a day" has stood the test of time because of the significance of the statement. Making a difference takes strategy, intentionality, and partnership. With the later arguably being the most important component. Do not reinvent the wheel, work within structures to best utilize resources for best impact. Listen to the wisdom of those around you. You will be surprised to see how many others have great ideas that can drive your mission towards completion.
View profiles of the people we featured last year for Minority Health Month 2021.
Last revised May 18, 2022