Our region has weathered compounding crises in recent years, from wildfires to the current pandemic, which have exacerbated but also brought much needed attention to some glaring health inequities. Along with these disparities in quality of and access to healthcare, some effective interventions for addressing them have also been around and, indeed, have grown with the need. Cultivating and supporting such successful interventions has never been more urgent. There is a great need, in particular, to recognize, support and sustain the critical role of community health workers, also known as promotores de salud. Promotores come from the communities they serve as trained and trusted health messengers and navigators for northern Sonoma County’s Latinx residents otherwise facing many obstacles and challenges to healthcare information, access, and equity.
Recently, Guadalupe Navarro, executive director of Latino Service Providers (LSP), generously took some time to speak with us about how LSP has been evolving their own distinct program for Youth Promotores.
The work we want to talk about goes under a variety of names, including “community health worker” or “promotor.” Can you begin by explaining what you mean by the term?
Latino Service Providers has been recruiting youth ages 16 to 25 to inform and educate their community on topics that impact us all. We use the term promotores. And that’s the recognized term, promotor. As an evidence-based practice it has been used in other communities. The term has evolved. I think that’s because we’ve seen an evolution of the role, owing to the need and also how different organizations want to incorporate promotores into their work. Observing organizations like Latino Service Providers, they’re recognizing that it has worked for us, and everybody wants to implement what works.
LSP’s Youth Promotor model has been growing over the last several years. How did it begin, and how has it evolved?
This is something that we implemented actually prior to the fires. We had applied for a grant in 2015-16 from a statewide initiative called the California Reducing Disparities Project, which was addressing mental health particularly in five communities—the Latinx, LGBTQ, African American, Native American, and Asian Pacific Islander communities. Funds were ultimately dispersed to 35 different organizations throughout California that centered their services on these five populations. Latino Service Providers was one of the 35. There was a total of four organizations selected here in Sonoma County to be recipients of these funds. We’re talking about a five-year grant, those are rare. LSP received $1.8 million to implement what is our Youth Promotor model. Our goal was to train youth on mental health, and for our youth to then go out into the community to help us reduce the stigma around mental health, particularly in the Latinx community. That’s how we first implemented and launched in 2017 our very first cohort of youth promotores. And we have had amazing data and outcomes from our first two cohorts.
After the Tubbs fires, American Red Cross approached us with an interest in having youth promotores trained on emergency preparedness, to then share out into the community best practices on being prepared for, in the event of, an emergency. Then, at the same time, to support the community during a disaster. So we launched what would be our second track of promotores, our Promotores Preparados. If you go to YouTube you’ll see all the amazing videos that our youth created, especially during the Kincade Fire [in 2019]. They created videos that talked about how to pack a bag, what to pack, they created a lot of messaging, with social media as a platform to connect with the community. And that was a year where we saw a large influx of Latinos checking into American Red Cross shelters, something that we’ve never really seen, because typically Latinos don’t go to shelters. During the Tubbs Fires, Latinos were congregating in Bodega Bay putting themselves and their families at higher risk because of how isolated Bodega Bay can be. That was the reason that the American Red Cross had approached us.
Then we launched a third track. Kaiser and the City of Santa Rosa reached out to us with an interest in getting youth involved in the City’s general plan, and at the same time to get them involved in civic issues. How do we educate our youth to be politically knowledgeable about basics like who the mayor is, when the City meets, who our district representatives are and how we connect with them? We began educating our youth on these basics, but soon [by design] they were leading conversations, conversations with the mayor, conversations with district representatives. That was very empowering. We’re now pending a second/third round of funding for this effort, our Promotores de la Ciudad.
Our fourth track is our Promotores Verdes, which are promotores focused on climate change and environmental issues.
In terms of what the term promotor means, and how it’s evolved for us over the past five years, these four tracks are all centered around LSP’s mission, which is to inform and educate the community on issues that impact our community. These tracks are all issues that our community can benefit from being informed and educated on. But they also entail inviting the community to platforms and spaces where they can then voice their concerns.
That’s the intention with the Promotores Verdes as well. Often people assume our Latinx community isn’t interested in environmental issues. In fact, in collaborating with several agencies that focus on climate change and environmental issues, we have found that it’s not a lack of interest but rather that, unfortunately, we often don’t make these spaces welcoming, we don’t make them bilingual, nor do we make them bi-culturally sensitive. With our Promotores Verdes we’re training our promotores in guiding these conversations, and inviting the community to be a part of the conversation.
Are you seeing job tracks developing for a more sustainable career in this necessary and proven field?
One thing I want to highlight, something that I think definitely distinguishes LSP, is that our model was intended to not only inform and educate our community but, first and foremost, to inform and educate our youth about the different careers that are available and accessible to them, especially here in their own community. For us, it’s a workforce development opportunity for our youth. Unfortunately, promotores are often contract-led, [the positions are tied to] grants. It’s an open question, when COVID relief efforts are done, whether organizations will decide they no longer need promotores and so they’ll no longer be funded. For us at LSP, this is a model that we know has been helpful for our community, and a model that we’re seeing impact our youth as well. So we want to continue this.
For example, this year we’re implementing our professional promotores. We now have three tiers: the first year is Youth Promotor, the second year is a Youth Promotor Leader, and the third year is a Pro Promotor, or professional promotor. This is a one-year internship linking the promotor to an organization that aligns with their track. So, for example, Promotores Verdes, if they are interested in continuing with LSP as a professional promotor, would apply for another year. They are then linked to the Sonoma County Regional Parks—a paid internship and partnership with an organization.
More broadly, what do you see as needed in terms of supporting promotores as a professional field?
Broadly speaking, we definitely need to look into sustainability. It’s a model that’s been proven to work and in areas with large and diverse communities. And I know from hearing from promotores directly that it’s also valuing them as individuals, as human beings, in the work that they’re doing. Being compensated, being treated as an employee.
For LSP, the youth promotores model is recognized to be of value and that’s why over the past five years we’ve been evolving the program. Our first cohort included 16 students. This year we have over 60 students, in which we provide a paid stipend for their time and effort in the work. We try to model for our youth that this is an important role and that the work that they’re doing should be commended and should be valued. I think it’s very important for our youth to learn early on that their time is valuable. We’re modeling and demonstrating for them that we want them to be our future workforce.
We’ve been doing this prior to the fires and prior to the pandemic. The pandemic and the fires have just been a spur for us to evolve the program. We took the opportunity to highlight something that we were already doing because we believe in this model. We believe in the work of our promotores.