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When Winnie Taiwo was a child in the New Orleans area, she watched her mother, a social worker from Belize, work with neighbors who had been displaced by Hurricane Katrina years earlier. It wasn’t until Taiwo was a student at Georgia State University that she realized her own family’s displacement, also caused by the hurricane, was a form of homelessness.
Another revelation came when she learned that the predominantly Black neighborhood she grew up in was home to a major lawsuit, as environmental toxins had influenced health disparities in the region.
While still a university student, Taiwo began working at the Whitefoord Health Center in Atlanta. Her own experience, as well as a different job in the medical field where she fielded calls from people asking for food, utility, and medical assistance to no avail, pushed her into community health.
“It was just like, I can’t just sit at home and do nothing,” she said.
Today, Taiwo is a community health worker at Whitefoord, located in Atlanta’s Edgewood neighborhood. Amid the global pandemic, she’s managed to reach disenfranchised groups and grow the health center’s patient base – a challenge in a gentrifying neighborhood where residents don’t always get along. She has hosted pancake breakfasts and bingo, passed out flyers on accessing health care, and helped people call Whitefoord to get an appointment.
Edgewood is a historically Black area with a population that has shifted to a mixture of white, young professionals with advanced degrees in the last few years. In 2019, Atlanta was considered the fourth fastest gentrifying city in the nation and the Edgewood neighborhood was seeing home prices rise. In the past, the area was known for high crime rates, low educational attainment, and high poverty rates.
Atlanta’s bustling housing market made the neighborhood a target for gentrification, as developers eyed plots of land to build new townhomes and apartment buildings. The gap in household income has widened in Edgewood, and the shift in economic status has pushed out longtime residents, many of them Black and low-income, causing divisions among community members.
Whitefoord hired Taiwo in November 2021 to connect with community members and help the federally qualified health center share reliable information about the vaccine with often mistrustful residents. While many in the United States have had at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, early research showed that young adults, residents with low educational attainment, and members of the Black community were least likely to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“We started with the vaccines and then because it was a community-wide effort, a lot of calls started coming in,” said Angela Giles, a former Whitefoord employee. “We were overwhelmed with over 1,000 calls in the first 24 hours.”
For all the success of the vaccine effort, health center staff say Taiwo’s work has gone much further: She has built trusting relationships that have helped members of the community access affordable health care services.
The pandemic actually brought with it a valuable opportunity. “It’s…caused most organizations to reintroduce themselves to the community as well as to new community partners,” said Louis Simmons, chief operating officer at the health center. “Winnie has done, I think, a wonderful job connecting us to even social service organizations that had never heard of Whitefoord. It’s definitely caused us to receive patients from those other organizations.”
Since the Covid-19 pandemic began in January 2020, Direct Relief has provided US community health centers and other healthcare providers with more than $520 million in medical resources and funding, including more than $130,000 in grants and medical donations to Whitefoord Health Center.
Simmons encouraged Taiwo to begin her outreach by connecting with local churches in Edgewood. Places of worship have traditionally been regarded as trusted, safe spaces in the Black community. Nearby St. Phillip AME Church already served as a vaccination site, and Whitefoord employees hoped other churches in the area would be willing to provide similar vaccination education.
“It’s because we know, as a Black community, the church environment is one of the main social institutions [where] we congregate,” Simmons said.
Taiwo said she quickly learned that there was a lot of misinformation within the community about coronavirus and the vaccine. She realized she could be a resource by answering questions the community brought forward and connecting people across organizations rather than just trying to sell them on Whitefoord’s services.
Pastor Fert Richardson from King Memorial United Methodist Church was one of many that Taiwo called. He invited his members to participate in a virtual vaccine education event that Whitefoord hosted.
Richardson joined the church in 2020, though the house of worship has been in Edgewood since the mid-1960s. He said the church’s demographics have shifted with the changes in the neighborhood as increased property values have pushed people out of the area.
“People are very concerned about that and trying to say, ‘No, that’s too much’,” he said. “But once you made that purchase you’ve kicked up everybody’s property value, which kicks up the tax.”
Recently, a developer’s plans to build a three-building apartment complex and an adjacent parking lot on what used to be two houses in Edgewood were foiled by community groups. The land the houses were located on sold for $1.6 million.
After connecting with Taiwo and O.N.E., Richardson said he began to learn about more events in the community in which his church could participate. As they learned more about food costs and the area’s significant homeless population, church members volunteered to support Whitefoord’s food distributions.
Taiwo said it was vital that they were building trusting relationships instead of “dropping in” on the neighborhood.
“I wanted to be an ally versus someone that just comes in and starts making changes that the community didn’t really ask for,” she said. “I wanted to see what the community was all about.”
Making themselves available
According to Taiwo, the Black community of Edgewood feels unheard regarding the area’s changing landscape, which has contributed to the mistrust between residents and community organizations in the past. Taiwo realized that trying to convince neighborhood residents to get the coronavirus vaccine wouldn’t work unless she learned their values, beliefs, and needs.
They had questions about Covid-19 safety precautions, the best places to go for reliable information, and the vaccine itself – particularly about how their data was being collected.
“I really took those (questions) very seriously because it comes from hundreds of years of oppression that Black people have experienced in this country,” Taiwo said. “Healthcare has not necessarily been the best for African Americans when we think about racial disparities.”
Open Heart Atlanta, a nonprofit that provides nutritious food and cooking classes to primarily low-income people of color across Georgia, is one of Whitefoord’s informal partners. Aleta McLean, the senior director of client services at Open Heart, said working with the health center has been constructive because neither organization asks the community for anything in return. They are simply making themselves available and supporting the needs of their neighbors.
In recent months the relationships have continued to grow. Taiwo said that people had called her directly to figure out how to get services and that she continues to plan community events for residents to participate. In April, she worked with local organizations to host a bingo breakfast for seniors who had questions about the coronavirus.
Whitefoord employees said they’ve learned that taking the initiative to reengage people where they are has helped them build trusting relationships with the community to seek out the health care services they need.
Giles, the former Whitefoord employee, said Taiwo’s work is organic and honest, with a grassroots approach that people trust and encourages other organizations to work with them.
“It was a great heartwarming thing to see everybody pulled together just piling resources,” Giles said.