“We have some super enthusiastic folks that are already automatically taking initiative,” says Jeff Campbell, referring to participants of the People’s Health Empowerment Project (PHEP). PHEP is a collaboration-focused leadership program created by BeHeard Colorado, a Community Voices for Health (CVH) partnership between the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and the Center for African American Health. This spring, PHEP held its first series of workshops with a cohort of eleven members of the Denver community interested in building advocacy and engagement skills around issues of health equity and health equity policy. Campbell, the creative director of the Emancipation Theater Company in Denver, partnered with BeHeard Colorado to co-design the curriculum and facilitate the PHEP workshops to support participants and leaders as they built relationships with one another.
The program consisted of four immersive and experiential workshops, running for five hours on Saturdays. The workshops were led by the project team and facilitated by Campbell, with guest speakers including health professionals, state agency leaders, and community organizers, and covered topics relating to health policy including root causes of disparities, community mobilization, reimagining healthcare systems through an equity lens, and the fundamentals of effective leadership. The final session included a graduation, celebrating what participants had learned and setting them up for monthly brainstorming meetings and meet ups which will allow them to continue to grow and apply their advocacy skills.
Recruitment material stated the program would be suited for “anyone interested in engaging in health advocacy in the African American community, from diverse backgrounds, working in healthcare institutions, nonprofits, private practice, or anyone with the experience of navigating their own journey through the healthcare system.” Recruiting participants for the first cohort proved somewhat challenging. The length and emotional depth of the curriculum was substantial for some would-be participants, and unexpected COVID-19 spikes caused delays in the program’s anticipated start date. However, the roadblocks that the team ran into while planning the first cohort provided them with helpful takeaways for planning the next round of workshops. “One of the learnings from the first cohort is setting some clear expectations around schedule and attendance” says Adam Fox, Deputy Director of Colorado Consumer Health Initiative. He and Campbell believe the appeal of the monthly meetings and opportunities to connect with past program graduates will provide an additional incentive for future cohort participants. “Scheduling is probably the biggest obstacle because life is happening in real time.” Campbell says, “But we found people who this was important to, and they made it work.”
The ultimate goal of the PHEP workshops is to bring community members together to develop their understanding of civic engagement, leadership, and networking, in order to advocate for policies, practices, and changes that reduce health inequities in the African American community. Eventually, the BeHeard Colorado team would like to see cohort graduates create equity action plans based on what they learned during the workshops. “The whole idea behind the project was really trying to create a community-driven project that could gradually build this cadre of advocates in the Black and African American community who have a solid understanding of equity from a whole variety of perspectives and some of the skills to really apply that for the community,” says Fox.
However, to get to the point where they could advocate within their communities, the participants needed to build trusting, strong relationships with one another, as well as with the cohort leaders and guest speakers. Throughout the workshop series, participants were given the time and space to share their stories. Since there is often a lot of trauma relating to experiences with health practices, particularly within Black communities, both Fox and Campbell agree that skill-building is difficult without first allowing participants to share their experiences and feel listened to. As Fox describes it, “The storytelling approach that Jeff facilitated was really vital because I think it helped create trust in a community that is used to being ignored.” Campbell adds that “People shared a lot of stuff, from participants to the leadership team, and it opened a space for empathy… it really created a level of trust and lightheartedness amongst each other. A real relationship bond was there as a result of people being vulnerable, being brave.”
Now in a reevaluation stage before their next cohort, the PHEP team is looking at what worked and what proved challenging during the first round of workshops. In particular, they are considering extending the program by one week, so they can dedicate additional time to advocacy skill-building without sacrificing the time allotted to trust-building. They are also working on organizing a monthly meeting for program graduates to brainstorm, network, and work on recruiting and developing the next evolution of the curriculum. This monthly meeting will be a key element in sustaining engagement and momentum among participants. Upon reflection of the first cohort, the PHEP leaders seem optimistic about the project’s future. “I think natural relationships came out of that,” Campbell says, “The participants worked hard to build trust and relationship with one another and are very enthusiastic about continuing.”