Pillsbury’s 2022 Health Fair at the Brian Coyle Center Credit: Pillsbury United Communities

Pillsbury United Communities is doing community health: conversations with frontline workers

When Awol Windissa describes his work, his vision is broad. “Community health,” he says, “is one way of connecting the dots of health, nutrition, chronic conditions, acute disease, of social determinants of health. You cannot talk about housing and leave out employment. You cannot talk about mental health and forget about the substance abuse part of the issue.”

As Director of Community Health for Pillsbury United Communities, a nonprofit with over 140 years of service in Minneapolis, Awol oversees a growing team of community health workers meeting needs from diabetes education to affordable housing.* First founded as a small team under the umbrella of Population Health, the Community Health impact area has grown to include its own director, an operations manager, and five full-time community health workers meeting community members at neighborhood centers across Minneapolis.

Awol Windissa, Director of Community Health Credit: Pillsbury United Communities

Working for well-being

At Community Health’s oldest location, the Brian Coyle Neighborhood Center in Cedar-Riverside, services are provided mainly to Somali and Oromo seniors by Community Health staff who grew up within East African communities. Awol, along with Community Health staff Fowzia Abdullahi, Abdul Sero, and Abdiqani Abdi, provide education, support, and resources for individuals in the neighborhood and beyond.

Among the services the team offers are navigation support for public benefits like Social Security and SNAP, help working with American medical systems, education around managing diabetes and other chronic conditions, and transportation to and from grocery stores or medical appointments.

Fowzia explains the connection between all these services: “What community health means to me is the well-being of the community . . . We are community builders. We are developers. We support with employment. We support with immigration, housing, connecting with the doctors, so many things. And everything starts with health . . . when you are healthy, you can do so much.”

Community health is community power

What does addressing this wide variety of issues look like in action? Abdul Sero notes that many of the people he works with come from immigrant and refugee backgrounds and often carry traumatic experiences with them. In response, he defines his work by saying that “community health is a place where we reduce the stress of the community in many ways, from helping directly or indirectly and educating the community to helping the community become self-sufficient.”

Similarly, Abdiqani talks about how seniors often leave the Chronic Disease Self-Management class he teaches with a feeling of power. “A lot of people sometimes feel like things happen to them,” he says, “and there’s nothing they can do. But when we do those workshop classes, they feel like – oh, at least there’s something.”

Fowzia Abdullahi, Community Health Coordinator Credit: Pillsbury United Communities

Public health professionals like Awol connect these ideas of stress and power to the concept of social determinants of health. “The current model of community health is very inclusive,” he says: If someone doesn’t have enough income to pay their rent, can’t access reliable transportation, or experiences the historical and everyday impact of racism and discrimination, their health will likely suffer. Addressing these “determinants” can help improve health outcomes like chronic disease’s toll on someone’s life or their risk of hospitalization from the flu.

So whether it means staying on the phone with a senior’s insurance company for hours, providing a ride and interpretation at a DVS appointment, or facilitating a conversation about medication management, Pillsbury’s Community Health Workers are coming alongside people where they are to support them in where they are going.

Dreaming the future of community health

And they have big dreams for the future. “I want to see us get more involved in housing support,” says Fowzia. No one should lose their housing because they get sick or lose their job, she says: that, too, is part of health. She is also excited to see Pillsbury beginning to address mental health and opioid use disorder in the Cedar-Riverside and Phillips neighborhoods through new programming funded by the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Awol, too, mentions the growing opioid crisis facing Cedar-Riverside and neighborhoods across the city. “I will see one day that [Pillsbury] has a mental health and substance abuse program which stands by itself . . . eventually I would like to have a hybrid approach – clinical and non-clinical.” He also mentions the expansion of Community Health programming from Cedar-Riverside to Phillips and North Minneapolis as one way Pillsbury is already bringing in the future.

Senior Aide Mohamed Kaid gets a vaccine at a clinic at Brian Coyle Credit: Pillsbury United Communities

Abdiqani sums up the holistic impact he and his team dream of for community health work. “When we say community health,” he says, “a lot of people will think we mean just disease, or viruses, or bacteria, but it’s not that. It’s more about improving the quality of life for people, improving health, teaching people how to engage in meaningful relationships in their community, how to take care of their body and their brain . . . I wish I could say it in one word, but it’s a lot. What community health means to me – it’s really something big.”

Connect with us

Did this article prompt a question about your health? Know a senior who could benefit from learning how to manage their chronic condition? Get in touch with Pillsbury United Communities’ Community Health team by calling the Brian Coyle Center front desk at 612-338-5382 or emailing our director, Awol Windissa, at awolw@pillsburyunited.org.

*In 2022, Pillsbury United Communities’ community health work was funded by the Minnesota Departments of Health and Human Services, Trellis (through funding from the Older Americans Act), the CDC Foundation, and the Steven’s Square Foundation.