A WPP-funded initiative, Reducing Health Inequity through Promotion of Social Connection, led by the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development is working to improve the health of Wisconsin’s Black communities by improving social and community support and addressing the negative health impacts of implicit and structural racism.

The Wisconsin Partnership Program invests in community partnerships as well as research and education initiatives that address a myriad of factors that contribute to poor health outcomes, including the negative impact of racism on health.

“Black people are suffering from the chronic stress that research has shown comes with daily ‘micro-aggressions’ — indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination — and leads to illness and premature death,” says Rev. Alexander Gee, DMin, founder and president of the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development. Nehemiah is using a five-year, $1 million Community Impact Grant to address these stark health disparities.

Alex Gee
Rev. Alexander Gee, DMin, founder and president of the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development welcomes attendees to the course Justified Anger: Black History for a New Day. Nehemiah is using a Community Impact Grant to improve health outcomes in communities of color.

Awarded in 2019, the initiative Reducing Health Inequity through Promotion of Social Connection, focuses on reducing health disparities among Black people by addressing the negative health impacts of structural and implicit racism through the promotion of social and community context,  one of the five domains of the social determinants of health.

The grant team has implemented several strategies to achieve its goals, including:

  • a nine-month leadership development program for emerging Black professionals that offers professional development, coaching, networking and community engagement opportunities
  • mentoring for grassroots leaders at the neighborhood level provides communication training, networking and project planning and implementation support for community initiatives
  • education and training for potential white allies through Nehemiah’s Justified Anger: Black History for a New Day course, which educates participants on African American history to help them understand structural and institutional racism, and identify racial justice strategies for effective allyship.

These programs have been successful in strengthening social support within Wisconsin’s Black communities. Karen Reece, PhD, Nehemiah’s VP of Research and Education, shares that over 2,600 people have taken the Justified Anger class to date, including 526 participants who took the class via Zoom, when the team had to adapt its programming for COVID-19. An additional 1,000 people across multiple sectors have taken the class as part of a group, including participants from American Family Insurance, First Business Bank, M3, Madison 365, TDS, City of Fitchburg, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Madison Metropolitan School District, Oregon School District,  Verona Area School District, as well as several other school districts, businesses and faith communities.

Tamera Stanley, family, staff and community engagement liaison for the Verona Area School District, coordinated district staff, including educators, coaches, substitute teachers, cooking and custodial staff  to attend the virtual trainings. “This training plays an important part in our district’s goal to build authentic relationships with our school communities,” says Stanley. “By understanding our history, we can better understand how what we say and do affects our students of color and can improve how we connect with their families as well.”

Reece agrees. “When people begin to understand our history and their own biases, they can reflect on how that can impact their roles in their places of employment and within communities and other social settings, which may lead to changes and improvement.”

It will take many years to eliminate racism and resulting health inequities from current systems and structures. Yet by improving social and community support through approaches like those identified by Nehemiah, this initiative has the potential to cultivate understanding, shift perspectives and forge pathways to meaningful change within the systems and structures that hold health inequities in place.

Greater understanding about implicit and structural racism can influence interpersonal responses and relationships and lead to the creation of organizational trainings, diversity initiatives and healthier and more inclusive spaces and workplaces.

In addition, by promoting social support and connection for Black professionals and neighborhood leaders, this work has the potential to improve health outcomes and well-being by improving the conditions in which people live, work and play.

“WPP’s support has allowed us to develop and expand our efforts to address the culture and systems that exacerbate stress and poor health outcomes,” says Gee. “In doing so, we can actualize the Wisconsin Idea for our state’s Black and Brown communities.”