Obelia Martinez is a promotora de salud (community health worker) serving Spanish-speaking communities in northern Sonoma County.
A promotora is a bilingual and bicultural public health worker who acts as a trusted health messenger and navigator for members of their community. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, promotores have had a vital role in outreach efforts in our region’s most vulnerable and marginalized neighborhoods. Outreach includes education as well as support with access to care, resources and vaccinations. The close ties and understanding that promotores have with their communities make such targeted outreach possible and impactful.
Obelia works with the Coordinated Outreach Collaborative (COC), which is made up of local organizations working together to support the community-based Community Health Worker Model in Sonoma County. COC includes the Center for Well-Being, Latino Service Providers, CURA Project, and Sonoma Connect | Sonoma Unidos. Promotoras receive training through the COC, which includes weekly COVID updates to help in outreach, training in mental health resources, and training to conduct certified blood pressure screenings.
Obelia also works with Roseland CBI (Community Building Initiative) & Equidad, which is focused on improving the Roseland neighborhood and keeping youth safe and out of trouble by assisting residents in taking the lead in creating meaningful change in their community.
We reached out to Obelia in order to hear directly from someone doing this critical and still under-appreciated work in communities where there are significant challenges to accessing information and services, especially during a crisis.
The following excepts, lightly edited, are from a conversation that Executive Director Kim Bender had with Obelia Martinez in May. (Translation from Spanish is by Ricardo Ibarra.) We hope this will be the first of many such conversations with community health workers in northern Sonoma County.
Thank you, Obelia, for taking the time to speak with us today. We want to learn from you what it’s like to be a promotora in Sonoma County. Can you tell us how you became a promotora?
I like to be involved in community activities and have always participated where there is a need to support people. I got started at CBI Roseland as a volunteer. From there, I became involved with other organizations. I like to stay active supporting the community and people in general.
What has that work looked like for you over the last two years of the pandemic?
I was involved in giving out information about the vaccine clinics, about testing sites, and general information about Covid. With Roseland CBI, we staffed an information table with flyers at the Roseland Mercadito [farmers market], which is on Sebastopol Road. There I had the opportunity to interact with people who were just passing by or were there to visit the Mercadito. I also worked at sites where the vaccine was being delivered, sharing information from other organizations as well. In terms of my personal experience, I have learned a lot during these last two years interacting with the community. I’ve also been trained in first aid and in how to take people’s blood pressure.
What do you and your colleagues need to continue this work in the community going forward?
It’s important to know where to collect information so that information can be shared. In the next crisis, it’s important to have a strong line of communication in place across which alerts can be sent, in a timely way, even when mobile communication may not be available. A direct line of communication with the community.
I also think it’s important to have some kind of certification, which would designate us officially as promotoras. This would create more interest in becoming promotoras de salud, and more community members could get the benefits of this outreach. I would like to see more value placed on this work. We promotoras are out in the streets, exposing ourselves to the virus, giving our time to the community. At COC, I had nine people under me. All nine promotoras were out in the community delivering needed information. It would be nice for them to receive more appreciation for their work.