Meet Yvette, an enthusiastic Community Health Worker, passionate leader, and committed activist. Yvette has been involved with Village Gardens for almost two years, and during this time has been a member on the advisory committee of the Village Market and an active gardener at Seeds of Harmony. Most recently, Yvette has become a member of the bike committee called “We All Can Ride” and has been engaged with “The Hub” bike project in New Columbia, right next to the Boys and Girls Club on North Trenton Street. At The Hub, community members can bring their bikes for basic repairs and can participate in workshops. “We teach the community how to take care of and repair their own bikes,” Yvette explains, “as a way of empowering people and building capacity and independence.” She has also been very active with the Urban League of Portland, a community-based organization that works to empower African Americans and other Oregonians to achieve equality in education, employment, health, and economic opportunity. What follows is Yvette’s own descriptions and reflections on her work with Village Gardens.
Describe some of the work you do as a Community Health Worker:
As a Community Health Worker, my work that I feel most connected to is the Urban League. Village Gardens and the Community Health Worker Program has facilitated my connection with the Urban League. They brought me an application for the Social Justice Civic Leadership Program, which is part of the Diversity Leadership Program. I feel very connected there.
Urban League offers many trainings. They work with you and teach you classical organizing….We use the Midwest Academy Manual for Activists–all organizers that I know consider it their bible. They use techniques based on that book. They train us with that book so we can further develop our organizing skills and perspectives. They offer opportunities in the community to apply to the world. With the Urban League, we have been going to Salem to advocate for better policies in health care, such as incorporating cultural competency in health care so that people of color can have better health outcomes. We also work with Community Education Partners, where we are working to reduce, if not eliminate, the disproportionate kids of color that are receiving discipline in schools. We are trying to reduce disparities in discipline referrals. We’re involved on that with Portland Public Schools.
Through Village Gardens, I’ve been able to go to conferences like the Food Policy conference, and another one for activists mobilizing for power. I was able to take three classes there, one called “An Ounce of Prevention.” I feel extremely fortunate that I’ve been able to go to these conferences. That’s one of the things I really like to do: to talk to people.
What does being a Community Health Worker mean to you?
Before Village Gardens, my daughter and I were homeless for twelve years, sleeping on couches. It sounds kind of not so scary–to sleep on someone’s couch seems like a community solidarity thing–but every place we lived the people were bad. We didn’t like it. It wasn’t acceptable for us. It was never a good living environment. Yeah, we had a roof over our heads, but it wasn’t good.
I knew if I were going to be alive, the only way I could live and be healthy and sane would be to live by my values. My values were to support the work of being a mom. Everything I did as a mom was preparing me to do what Community Health Workers do for the community. What it means for me is that Community Health Workers have the same goals as myself. Really. The shared goal is being care givers in the community, empowering people and building capacity. Without even knowing it, Community Health Workers was what I had been living for all that time, by being a mother to my daughter.
So called “minority communities” are effected by [systems] in society in ways that mainstream people are not. I’ve always been an advocate. Coming back to my daughter, to my being her mom, I honestly feel like I am a mom for everyone. There’s not a distinction because she’s connected to the rest of the world. Her safety is dependent on everyone else’s safety. I can’t be a mom in a void. We don’t live in a void. People can’t fight for a right in a void. There has to be community. I had to look years ahead, think about the future. It’s a lot more work than changing diapers. That’s why I feel connected to community health work. Its for overall well-being. Not just physical health, but also spiritual,social, political…more intangible things.
The ultimate goal of community health and public health is justice and equity. I try to do the work at the front end like that. I’d rather do preventative work, looking at the social determinants of health…[To combat this], I supported my daughter’s education because I knew it was the number one way to get out of poverty. I didn’t want her to be in poverty. I didn’t know if these things would work, but I had no choice. I could make a mistake for myself, but not with my daughter. I tried to support her, empower her. Build capacity. That’s what Community Health Workers do. We build capacity and empower people. We do work so that people can be empowered.
As a Community Health Worker, what are your visions for the future?
I still have personal unfulfilled goals. I want to start a really good mom’s group. It can also be political, but just an ultimate mom’s group. A support group where moms can come. The main idea is that they can get together and talk. The first step is making people welcome and willing to speak, willing to share, willing to connect. The second step is organizing to develop a shared political analysis. You come together. You assemble. You know, [exercise] the right to assemble. So you can be united. And therefore empowered.
What is your “soul food”?
Soul Food to me is whatever is good for the soul. To me it’s more like a feeling. A warm fuzzy, kind of. It’s solidarity. Where you feel positive. To me, the way to get that is through community. I think that’s what people need. Otherwise we’d be hermits. We have to have positive connections and relationships with people. Thats what I think soul food is–whatever transpires in those connections, it could be anything. Kind of like storytelling.
Why is Village Gardens important for this community?
I think that Village Gardens really understands that communities need to be communities. And that they need to be healthy. We are all united behind well-being. Health is not just the physical body. It’s the community as a whole. It’s about social relations too. But at the same time, you need all hands on deck. Even though these are the bigger, ultimate ideas, we also need direct service to deal with immediate need, which is health. Like the gardens. Fresh, organic food is really important. So that’s what unifies people. We can all agree that this is vital.
Poor people are treated so badly. Poor people are constantly blamed, the individual is blamed, as if power or the government doesn’t have any effect on them. The only way you can dismantle those things are programs like Village Gardens. Bringing connections to the community and building partnerships–that is essential. And this is ultimately a life or death issue. People can die from social policies. People do die from social policies. Not just that, its what I said earlier. I would rather die than to live a life exploited. I would rather die than to work for the “other side” or for someone I don’t authorize to steel my labor. I don’t want to contribute to that. Village Gardens is a way to reverse that cycle of systemic oppression so that people aren’t used and insulted.
If Village Gardens wasn’t here, then people living here would continue to be pummeled by the system and always be last, at the bottom of the totem pole, disrespected, made to feel worthless. Village Gardens is a statement against that. Village Gardens empowers people to stand up against those kinds of things. To take charge of their own lives and do something positive. It is crucial to have someone to stand up for you. Otherwise there is always going to be a large group of poor people that are being walked on unless someone stops it. It has to happen on the ground. It has to happen through partnerships. It’s the most important work in the world, period. There is nothing else that can compare.