In a small southeast Portland church, a group of eager students gather to learn how to better serve the Pacific Islander community. They start the day with exercises to build trust and break the ice. Soon the room is exploding with energy, laughter and playful banter.
The training is the first of its kind in Multnomah County, the result of a collaboration between the Health Department’s Community Capacitation Center, the Micronesian Islander Community and the Pacific Islander Coalition.
The training is teaching the skills required to become a community health worker. Community health workers connect their communities with healthcare services, often using cultural competency, education and counseling skills.
For the Pacific Islander community, community health workers can fill a crucial gap between the healthcare system and culture.
By pairing Pacific Islander languages, culture and history with an interactive and collaborative teaching approach, participants learn skills that they can bring back to their community. The training will enable these new community health workers to serve Pacific Islanders in a way that is culturally-specific, and provides a sense of safety and belonging.
The Pacific Islander Coalition
The Pacific Islander Coalition is chartered by the Multnomah County Health Department, although its purpose is to increase visibility and address the concerns of the Pacific Islander community throughout Oregon. Pacific Islanders face a number of challenges that include health and socio-economic disparities.
Joe Enlet of the Health Department’s Health Equity Initiative program founded the Pacific Islander Coalition in 2016. He gathered a number of Pacific Islander members that were highly involved in their communities. Several months later, the group had organized a coalition with a steering committee, voting members and a voice to catch the attention of elected officials and decision-makers.
During bimonthly meetings, the coalition discusses challenges they face. This has pushed the coalition to lead several efforts, particularly:
- Development of a Pacific Islander-specific community health worker training
- Opening the Federated States of Micronesia Consulate General Office
- A push for better and more meaningful data on the Pacific Islander community
Pacific Islander Community Health Worker Training
The Health Department’s Community Capacitation Center offers several culturally-specific community health worker trainings and continuing education opportunities. Together with the Micronesian Islander Community and the Pacific Islander Coalition, they saw a need and organized the first community health worker training for Pacific Islanders.
The training combines the curriculum and popular education expertise of the Capacitation Center staff with the cultural insights of our community partners. The first cohort graduated in February 2018.
The training provides transferable skills to people who are doing the duties of community health workers with the Pacific Islander community, but are not officially certified.
The 13-day training covered mental health, substance abuse, maternal and child health, infectious and chronic disease, as well as advocacy. Topics were taught using a Pacific Islander-cultural lens to help the trainees provide culturally-appropriate care.
According to coalition chairperson Sandi Mincer, “It’s good for everybody. [Participants] get the training, help the Pacific Islander community, and can help other underserved communities.”
“The training is a priority because [the participants] are already doing [the work], but are not being recognized. Getting formal training will help them get recognition that they are professional,” Mincer explains.
Thanks to funding from Multnomah County and additional fundraising efforts by Micronesian Islander Community Chairperson Jackie Leung, the training graduated 19 participants from as far as Eugene, Oregon. One participant, an interpreter working in several health care systems in the Portland metro area, described instances in his work where he felt unable to fully help his clients.
“If I am a certified health worker,” he explains “I can advocate for the patient.”
By the end of the training, he’ll be eligible to become a certified community health worker. These skills enable him to better connect his clients and his community with the healthcare services they need, thus improving their health outcomes.
Federated States of Micronesia Consulate General Office Opening
Through a collaboration with CANN (COFA Alliance National Network),* the Micronesian Islander Community and the Federated States of Micronesia government, the Pacific Islander Coalition opened a Consulate General Office here in Portland on NE Halsey Street.
The opening represents a significant achievement. For the first time, citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia living in the Western United States are able to get liaison services for immigration forms, passports and other documentation. They can also receive consular services, assistance and support from its Consul General.
The Quest for Pacific Islander Data
How many citizens from the Federated States of Micronesia and Pacific Islanders in general are there living in Multnomah County? The opening of a consulate general office suggests there must be a lot, but the exact number is largely unknown. In addition to its other successful projects, the Pacific Islander Coalition is also determined to increase the amount of Pacific Islander-specific data.
“Oh, that would be my dream!” Saane Pongi, a Pacific Islander Coalition member, exclaims. Pongi’s passion and desire for more data is common among Pacific Islander Coalition members.
There’s little information on demographics, geography, health outcomes, income or education. Without sufficient data, the Pacific Islander Coalition and other organizations don’t know where to put their dollars, how to advocate or which issues deserve attention.
“Data collecting will be hard,” Pongi says. “I would love to have the state help out and support to show that the uncounted populations need help.”
The coalition discussed this issue during a listening session with Chair Kafoury in November 2017. It became clear that without access to numbers and data, the Pacific Islander community’s story cannot be told.
“You can’t make change if you don’t know the numbers you’re working with,” Mincer explains. With the county’s support, the Pacific Islander Coalition could substantially impact the Pacific Islander community in Multnomah County.
“Pacific Islanders are very friendly and don’t like to make waves,” Mincer acknowledges, “but we’re realizing that we have to.”
*Three Pacific Islander nations (the Republic of Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia) have a unique treaty with the United States called a Compact of Free Association (COFA). In Oregon, the COFA Alliance National Network (CANN) works to advocate for people from COFA nations.