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“Some of Us Have Never Been Silent”: Race, health and engagement in Southwest Georgia

October 21, 2020

Bambie Hayes-Brown has always known three Georgias. “There was “Atlanta,” “Most of Georgia,” and then there was “Southwest Georgia,” she writes in the blog for her organization, Georgia ACT, a statewide membership organization of nonprofit housing and community development organizations. A lifelong resident of Southwest Georgia, Hayes-Brown has borne witness to the stark disparities between life for those in metro Atlanta and that of residents in rural parts of the state, especially the Southwest.

Hayes-Brown looks at conditions now, including COVID-19, and she is reminded of many painful incidents of the past and their impact on the present. She is happy about protests, but she says, “When I see statements such as “We Will Not Be Silent!” I am troubled because some of us have never been silent. People just didn’t listen.”

“When I see statements such as “We Will Not Be Silent!” I am troubled because some of us have never been silent. People just didn’t listen.”

For years, advocates like Bambie have been trying to raise awareness about the myriad of disparities and inequalities that plague the Southwest Georgia region: the divestment in Black and Brown communities, the closure of rural hospitals, lack of affordable housing, lack of rural broadband, poor or non-existent public transportation, and so much more. Albany, the largest city in the region, has high rates of preventable diseases like hypertension and diabetes; teen pregnancy; sexually transmitted diseases and unemployment in the double digits. Phoebe Hospital is the only one in the region. COVID-19 has just shone a brighter light on these long-existing realities.

For anything to change, the voices of these communities must be sustainably amplified. The Community Voices for Health (CVH) – Georgia project is working to provide better infrastructure for amplifying these voices, ensuring that listening happens by equipping a strong grassroots network of health advocates (see box).

The primary focus of CVH – Georgia is strengthening the state’s network of community health workers (CHWs), who are already vital resources, particularly in rural communities. Also known as peer supporters or promotoras, CHWs are frontline health workers who are members of or have close connections to the community they serve. Their relationships allow them to serve as liaisons between health care, social services, and communities in need. While advocacy and engagement are essential to this role, many CHWs lack the training to be as effective as possible.

The project will address this gap by building the capacity of Georgia’s community health workers to engage in effective community organizing and civic advocacy through training, technical assistance, and peer learning. The project will sustain this engagement by focusing on fostering and nurturing relationships within a network of CHWs and the project team that will outlast the duration of this project. CVH – Georgia is led by Berneta Haynes and Liz Coyle of Georgia Watch along with Natalie Hernandez of Morehouse School of Medicine, Laura Colbert of Georgians for a Healthy Future, and Hayes-Brown of Georgia ACT.

Hayes-Brown is thrilled about CVH – Georgia and the opportunity to piece together community members and community health workers to build strategy, capacity, and strengthen advocacy for areas like Southwest Georgia. “Finally, somebody gets it!”

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Treston Codrington

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