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As a community health worker, I help people experiencing homelessness or living with mental health or substance use disorders. I also work with at-risk youth and families of gun violence.
In addition to that work, I’m employed by the National Association of Community Health Workers, where I currently support 12 community health workers across the United States.
I participate in collaborative activities that focus on keeping youth in their communities and out of incarceration. I mentor at-risk youth by providing peer support and helping with job searches, resume building, and other life skills. Every day is different and requires that we adapt to our communities’ changing needs, which may mean doing things like meeting with community members, coaching, or conducting motivational interviews (a counseling method that encourages clients to make positive changes).
My work might involve some evenings and weekends. For example, I facilitate workshops for the city that cover life-skills topics for community members affected by gun violence. I no longer have a caseload in my current position, but in the evenings I mentor at-risk youth and adults who are directly or indirectly affected by judicial, prison, or youth and family systems.
My current responsibilities include advocating for community health workers nationally, advancing the occupation, and gathering feedback from frontline workers about their needs in serving their communities. I also have meetings throughout the week with the 12 leaders I support, both as an active listener and to keep them informed, so that they have the tools and resources they need to continue promoting racial and health equity.
Empathy, passion, self-determination, relatability, trust, and dedication. Community health workers have a key role in the community and understand the needs around them, either through direct or indirect experience. They are trusted advisors to the hardest-to-reach populations. Their clients may have been subjected to stigma and mistrust throughout their lives. These individuals often go without having their basic needs met, and the community health worker is a mentor who walks hand in hand and day by day with them to make small improvements. This is high-impact, high-pressure work, and it often goes unrecognized.
Many community health workers speak of the people in their own communities who are struggling as a motivating factor for why they do this work. They’re typically not motivated by financial gain or recognition, because they often receive neither. There is a calling to this work and a desire to fix the root causes of community issues because they have experienced, and possibly overcome, these same issues at some point in life.
I unknowingly trained for this occupation through life experience. While serving time in the penitentiary system, I wanted to become a peer mentor but needed a high school diploma. I started working toward my diploma, and a teacher recommended me for the mentoring position before I finished the diploma program. I got hired for the position and started teaching a community re-entry program.
I began managing peer cases. At the time, I had no idea that the service I was providing was the same as that of a community health worker. After my release from prison, I continued to build my capabilities in my community. I persisted in receiving state training and certification, after initially being denied because of my criminal record, and became a community health worker with an active client caseload.
My background has had a tremendous effect on my current work. It gave me the courage to speak about my lived experience, as well as the transferrable skills that I use when meeting other community members where they are. I’m able to offer respect and understanding of the valuable role they have in uplifting their own community.
Without finding myself through lived experience, I don’t think I would’ve found this occupation. It has equipped me with a sort of internal survival guide, which I then use to help others create their own plan of change. I’ve also taken some social work classes, and that formal education supplements my lived experience and certifications.
At the national level, it’s frustrating to see the lack of understanding about just how valuable community health workers are to their community. These workers are strategically placed in underserved environments and produce sustainable outcomes for their clients, and they should be valued and respected for doing so.
At the community level, I often experience secondary trauma from working with individuals who are still in crisis. I must make sure to create boundaries and detachment between my work and my personal life so that the heaviness doesn’t weigh me down outside of work. I’ve also learned to be grateful for the small actions that go a long way: getting someone a cup of coffee, or getting a client to complete their goals.
I love hearing about other community health workers’ achievements, whether they have a successful client base or leadership opportunities. I'm happy just having them express gratitude to me for listening to them talk about their day. I love to support growing community health workers in going outside their comfort zone, building their leadership, and finding their voice.
Most importantly, it stirs my spirit to meet and interact with community members. To support them from their first stage of change all the way until they have reached their goals is the greatest gift for me. Watching a person or family go from hopeless and broken down to having a firm foundation is such an honor.
Take a personal inventory and see what experience you already have that serves to benefit others in your community. You might have all the qualities of a community health worker through your own lived experience. Community health workers are dedicated to showing up on the hardest days and giving selflessly to the people they serve.
Ryan Farrell, "Community health worker," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 2022.