Episode 12 | Diversity in Rural Communities

Feb. 1, 2018

Show Notes:

In this episode, Chuck is joined by RFI Faculty Fellow Athena Ramos, Ph.D. of the UNMC College of Public Health Center for Reducing Health Disparities, whose work focuses on  health and wellness factors of immigrant populations, often in rural settings, but not exclusively.

Ramos serves as principal investigator for a number of community-based health research and education initiatives at UNMC and leads a Latino outreach and engagement team. They will be discussing inclusion and diversity in rural communities.

We chose her as a RFI Fellow because, frankly, she gets it. She understands how the University can resonate and should create impact with rural communities throughout the state. She discusses her background, her passion and two of her RFI-funded projects.


Quick Links:

Full Transcript:

[0:05] Welcome back to Catch Up With Chuck [0:07] from The Rural Futures Institute [0:09] at the University of Nebraska. [0:11] I’m Chuck Schroeder, [0:12] I’m Executive Director of the Institute. [0:15] Last year we spent some serious time [0:18] in a strategic planning process, and in that process [0:21] we asked ourselves what are those things [0:24] we really believe about thriving rural communities [0:28] and it wasn’t just things we pulled out of the air [0:30] it was based on our observations and what we really felt [0:33] made a difference in rural communities. [0:36] Two of those beliefs are number one [0:38] that diverse and inclusive leadership [0:41] is a critical factor in thriving rural communities. [0:46] Second we believe that our complex future [0:49] requires mutual respect and coordination, collaboration [0:54] between rural and urban regions and communities. [0:57] So it’s a very special treat today for me to welcome [1:01] our very special guest Dr. Athena Ramos, [1:04] who is the Community Health Program Manager [1:07] at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. [1:10] She is a fellow with The Rural Futures Institute [1:13] we’re proud to say and certainly a very committed [1:16] difference maker in Nebraska’s rural communities. [1:19] So Athena, welcome. [1:21] Thank you, thank you so much for having me.

[1:23] Well listen, you’re a rock star. [1:25] (laughing) [1:27] I knew that that’d make you laugh and blush [1:28] but it’s just the truth you have a fascinating background. [1:31] I’m gonna look at my notes on this because it’s so much fun. [1:34] Bachelors Degree in Public Administration, [1:37] and NBA and a Master’s in Urban Studies. [1:42] Yeah. [1:43] Correct. Yeah. [1:43] Ph.D in International Family and Community Studies. [1:48] You’re a prolific researcher I really [1:51] I get a kick out of looking through your record [1:54] of publications. [1:55] You’ve been published in prestigious journals [1:57] on a very wide variety of subjects. [2:00] I happen to know you’re also a figure skater [2:02] for heaven sakes. [2:03] Yes. [2:04] But listen before we get into some specific areas [2:07] of interest of The Rural Futures Institute [2:10] I want you to help us know Athena a little better. [2:12] Cause I’m gonna tell you we have parents and students [2:16] and others watching who would very much like [2:19] to have their kids grow up to be like Athena, [2:21] so tell us a little bit about [2:23] what brought you to this point.

[2:25] Wow, what a great compliment. Thank you. [2:27] (laughing) [2:28] Well, I guess I would start out by saying [2:30] I’m a long life Nebraskan, [2:31] I’m a Bellevue kid, I grew up in Bellevue, [2:35] my father was in the Air Force [2:37] which is what brought my family here [2:39] to Nebraska in the first place. [2:43] I didn’t get any of the Air Force brat lifestyle, [2:46] I didn’t get to move around. [2:47] (laughing) [2:48] He retired before they had me [2:49] so I was kind of stuck here in Bellevue (laughs). [2:52] I’m the daughter of immigrants, [2:54] my father is from Puerto Rico, [2:55] my mother is from Germany. [2:57] I’m a product of the University of Nebraska’s system [3:00] I did three out of those four degrees that you mentioned [3:03] at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. [3:06] I’m a mom of three, [3:09] I have two boys and a girl, [3:11] I have a 14 year old son, [3:13] a 13 year old son, and a 5 year old little daughter. [3:16] I’m married to my husband Jose, [3:19] and I’ve been working for UNMC in the center [3:22] for reducing health disparities now for over 10 years, [3:25] which is really great because I love my job. [3:28] I tell people every day that it’s a pleasure to go to work [3:30] because I get to do so many different things [3:32] and I have the bet job ever, is what I tell people. [3:35] (laughing) [3:38] I started out working actually in the community, [3:42] so my very first professional job was [3:44] with the Latino Center of the Midlands, [3:46] so I have this passion for community, for organizing, [3:49] for working with people, talking to people. [3:51] I’m one of those people that I can do the desk job [3:55] but I sure love to talk to people (laughs), [3:57] so they put me out there [3:59] and I think that’s one of my strengths, [4:02] is being with people. [4:03] Sure. Mm-hmm.

[4:04] Well listen, I can remember very specifically [4:09] you and I first met at our first World Regional Forum [4:13] that we hosted in Nebraska City in 2014, [4:16] and you were one of those that absolutely was engaging [4:20] everybody in the place and including me, which I appreciate. [4:24] But my first thought was [4:26] so what’s this person from the University of Nebraska [4:29] Medical Center doing hanging around [4:32] at this Rural Regional Forum, but I quickly discovered [4:35] that you really have a genuine deep interest [4:38] in community and community development, [4:41] and bringing people together. [4:43] Talk to us just a little bit about those interests [4:46] and you spoke a little bit already about those roots [4:49] but talk about what drives you out [4:52] to that community engagement.

[4:53] Yeah, sure. [4:54] Well I’ll tell you how I got to [4:56] that Rural Futures Forum (laughs out loud). [5:00] And actually I’m not sure that a lot of people know [5:03] but there are a lot of health disparities [5:05] that are based on your location. [5:08] So looking at rural areas we see that there are differences [5:12] in rates of substance use, in different cancers, [5:17] and infant mortality, and cardiovascular disease, [5:20] and a lot of different chronic conditions. [5:22] So that’s what originally got me to the Rural Forum [5:25] because as a center for reducing health disparities [5:27] we have a mission to serve the entire state of Nebraska [5:30] not just the urban area. [5:33] And also professionally I’ve been working [5:36] gosh I wanna say since 2012, 2012 [5:41] with the Central State Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, [5:44] which is based out of our College of Public Health in Omaha [5:47] but we serve a seven state region. [5:49] We serve Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, [5:52] North Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota. [5:56] And we look at health and safety issues [5:59] among the agricultural population. [6:01] So farmers and farm workers, [6:02] I primarily work with farm workers. [6:04] I’ve had a number of studies that look [6:06] at migrant farm workers health, [6:08] whether that be physical health, or behavioral health, [6:11] social health, integration. [6:13] I also worked with the hog confinement workers, [6:16] immigrant hog confinement workers [6:17] and now we’re working on the feed lots. [6:19] So I have a project right now that’s looking at health [6:22] and safety among immigrant cattle feed lot workers [6:24] here in Nebraska and also in Kansas. [6:28] So you can see professionally there is definitely a reason [6:30] to be at The Rural Futures Forum. [6:32] Sure.

[6:33] But I can tell you [6:34] growing up as a kid, always here in Nebraska [6:37] you know in school I remember the Oregon Trail [6:40] I don’t know if anybody else remembers that on the computer [6:43] when the computer screens were black and green. [6:46] (laughing) [6:48] I remember that. [6:48] Back in that day (laughs out loud). [6:50] There was the Oregon Trail game [6:52] and that was something that sparked my interest [6:56] in different parts of our state, [6:58] because you had to go to the different monuments [7:00] and the different sites along on the trail. [7:02] I also remember my father would take me on summer vacations [7:06] and we’d travel across the state, we like to drive. [7:08] And so we’d stop at Chimney Rock or at Scottsbluff [7:12] or we’d go to Pioneer Village. [7:14] Sure, oh yeah. [7:15] We just did a lot of things all across our state [7:17] so it was a good way for a suburban kid like me [7:19] to be exposed to what’s really out there, [7:21] and the vastness of out state. [7:24] I think that was one of the things too [7:27] that has all this you know, opened my eyes [7:29] to a different world of away from, different from, [7:32] just the urban living. [7:36] Also, we had a restaurant. [7:38] Really? We had a restaurant. [7:39] Right, yeah. In a little town (laughs). [7:41] I wanted you to tell that story, yeah. [7:42] Yeah, my husband and I actually had a restaurant [7:44] a few years ago in Murray, Nebraska. [7:48] And it was a really great experience [7:50] I loved the small town life, I loved the people, [7:53] I loved engaging over coffee with the guys [7:56] who come to play cards, [7:57] you know it was just a really neat experience. [8:00] So coming to The Rural Forum and participating [8:03] in Rural Futures for me was not just about the passion [8:07] that I have for improving health [8:08] but it’s about improving communities [8:10] and improving the social structures that create [8:13] opportunities for a better life for everyone.

[8:15] Listen, I think this is an important story [8:17] that I was hoping we could touch on with you today. [8:22] Since you and I first met at that forum [8:25] The Rural Futures Institute is actually done a number [8:28] of projects with faculty, researchers, students, [8:32] and others at the University of Nebraska Medical Center [8:35] focused on rural communities. [8:37] I think a lot of people think of the Med Center [8:39] as tall buildings, the Buffett Cancer Center, [8:44] Ebola work that they’ve done, all of those sorts of things [8:47] that they think of as being confined on their campuses [8:51] in Omaha, but the fact is the Med Center [8:55] has a state wide mission [8:58] that reaches to faculty, [9:01] students, staff, others throughout the center. [9:06] You are an embodiment of that as you just demonstrated. [9:10] Can you talk just a little bit about that [9:12] that broader mission that I think a lot of people [9:15] don’t realize exists.

[9:16] Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head Chuck. [9:19] At the Med Center at UNMC we view our campus [9:22] as 500 miles wide, we really are one of those [9:25] state institutions that tries to touch everybody [9:28] in the state of Nebraska, so we’re committed [9:31] not just to the Omaha area but we also have actual physical [9:34] campuses on Lincoln, in Norfolk, [9:37] in Kearney, and in Scottsbluff. [9:40] We are committed as I said to the health and wellbeing [9:43] of the people of the state of Nebraska, [9:45] so we’re trying to grow the next generation [9:47] of health professionals and also providing [9:49] professional development opportunities [9:51] for those who are already working in the field, [9:54] but we want to also be able to conduct lifesaving research [9:57] that takes lots of people, and it’s a huge endeavor [10:00] and we do out best to be able to translate those research [10:03] findings to actual changes in the field [10:07] so in a way that we’re delivering health care [10:09] and services to the people all across our state, [10:12] and I believe that UNMC is really a vital enterprise [10:16] for our state, [10:18] not just in terms of the research and education and service [10:21] that we do, but we’re also a huge economic generator [10:24] for the state of Nebraska.

[10:26] Absolutely right. [10:27] I mean it’s important for people to understand a world class [10:31] medical research enterprise that very purposefully [10:35] connects all the way down to communities. [10:38] Yeah, we actually have some students [10:40] that do rural rotations, [10:41] I don’t know if– [10:42] Yes, well absolutely. [10:43] (laughs) [10:44] Yeah, actually we were part of that early work [10:47] with The Rural Futures Institute [10:50] and working with Patrick Johansson, [10:52] and that’s been a lot of fun. [10:53] So in fact, talking about The Rural Futures Institute [10:57] one of our direct connections with Athena [11:01] is that two of your project proposals [11:07] have been sponsored by The Rural Futures Institute [11:10] focus very heavily on how do we create world communities [11:16] that are genuinely welcoming to people who are coming [11:19] from other countries, other cultures, other backgrounds, [11:23] and trying to build a new home [11:26] and a new life for themselves. [11:27] I want you to talk a little bit about those projects Athena, [11:30] and particularly their impact on communities.

[11:33] Yeah, absolutely. I am very happy to talk about [11:35] those projects, I think they really do make a difference. [11:41] The demographic composition of our state is changing [11:43] which you know, and I think as a Rural Futures Institute [11:47] you made a deliberate effort to provide some research [11:50] and some service in this area. [11:52] And a lot of times the growth in the rural communities [11:55] in our state and in others like Nebraska [11:57] is really dependent upon the immigrants [11:59] that are coming into– [12:00] It’s absolutely right. [12:01] our communities, so let me start out [12:04] with the very first project that we did last year, [12:07] which was The Teaching and Engagement Grant [12:09] that we got through the RFI. [12:11] And what we did last year is we surveyed [12:16] 200 Hispanic immigrants in two different communities [12:19] of north east Nebraska. [12:21] What we wanted to explore was sense of community, [12:24] civic participation, and life satisfaction. [12:27] And what we found is that immigrants want to feel [12:32] a sense of community in their new place, [12:35] and they feel that this sense of community [12:37] is more than just a geography, [12:39] it’s about unity, it’s about knowing [12:41] that I got your back and you got mine, [12:44] it’s about participating, and being engaged. [12:47] We found that people do participate, [12:49] immigrants are participating in their communities.

[12:54] So for example we found that a lot of Hispanic immigrants [12:58] were already participating in different associations, [13:01] they are volunteering their time [13:02] for community organizations, [13:04] they are donating to community organizations, [13:06] and they really are trying to be a part of the community. [13:10] And we found that Hispanic immigrants are happy [13:14] with the lives that they have in the rural places, [13:16] and they expect to be there for a long time. [13:19] So it’s to our advantage to really harness this energy [13:23] and this passion that people have as they’re coming into [13:26] a new place to be integrated into the community, [13:30] that’s what that first project was really about. [13:33] So talking with the immigrants themselves. [13:36] The next phase which is what we consider this year [13:39] is really phase two of that project, [13:41] so how do we create a welcoming community? [13:45] So right now what we are in the process of doing [13:47] is interviewing community leaders [13:50] in the two communities that we’ve been working with [13:52] which are Columbus and Schuyler, Nebraska, [13:55] and talking to those community leaders [13:57] using appreciative inquiries so trying to pull out [14:01] those positive deviations from the norm, [14:04] and really get to what does welcoming mean? [14:07] And what have you heard that worked in other places? [14:09] What are some things that you might think [14:11] could work in your community? [14:12] And how do we create that spark or that tipping point [14:16] to get communities to do those types of activities? [14:20] We really think that [14:23] at least the two communities where were working [14:26] they’re hungry, the communities are hungry [14:29] for having diverse and inclusive leadership. [14:32] We just started doing interviews this week in Columbus [14:34] and I can tell you from the three interviews that we did [14:36] so far, in every interview we heard that we really need [14:41] to focus on growing a diverse leadership pipeline. [14:44] So I think this idea of diversity inclusion [14:46] is on the minds of community leaders [14:48] and I think part of what we can do [14:50] as the University of Nebraska is to give tools [14:54] to communities, to build capacities, [14:56] so that they can implement programs, or structures, [14:59] or policies that really help to make [15:01] that diversity inclusion a reality. [15:04] I have to tell you that has been a real eye opener [15:07] and a pleasant surprise in the communities where we work [15:11] with our forms, with other engagements we’ve had [15:15] with community leaders and a variety of communities [15:17] around the state it’s not a matter of how do we stop this [15:22] it is a matter of how do we wisely engage [15:27] our new residents in the life of our community [15:30] and I think that’s so important.

[15:32] So listen, as you describe your projects [15:36] I think there’s a key truth in the middle of all this [15:40] the projects that we sponsor at The Rural Futures Institute [15:43] are designed not just to be faculty [15:48] experts going to communities telling people [15:51] how they aught to do things, [15:52] it really is a matter of having people like a Athena [15:57] who really are people people. [15:59] (laughing) [16:01] Going out and engaging people and finding solutions [16:05] in those communities. [16:07] Talk a little bit about what draws you to that kind of work [16:10] and how it’s somewhat unique in academic set.

[16:13] Sure, well I think traditionally research within [16:18] the academy has really been about data, and numbers, [16:21] and publications, and not so much about [16:23] the subjects or the participants. [16:26] Even the language that we use in researches [16:29] I think a little bit jaded, [16:30] calling a person a subject, I don’t get it. [16:33] (laughing) [16:35] I also, I think that the university [16:38] and universities across the country kind of get a bad rap [16:42] for doing what people would call helicopter research. [16:46] You come in, you fly in, you drop down, [16:48] you do your project and you fly back out, [16:50] nobody ever hears anything about what happened [16:54] with the project, how to use the data, [16:56] what the data said, nobody knows anything. [16:59] So I really believe in a more participatory type of research [17:03] with communities so it’s a true partnership. [17:06] Which is something that we’ve tried to do [17:08] very intentionally with the projects that I work with [17:11] is really engaging with the community up front. [17:14] So for example with our project last year [17:18] and developing the survey instrument that we’re going to use [17:21] with community members, we actually had [17:24] our community partners give us feedback, tell us you know, [17:27] do you think this question is good? [17:29] Is the wording right? [17:30] Is the translation correct? [17:31] Are people going to understand it? [17:33] Do you have other feedback? [17:35] Help us figure out how to do focus groups, [17:37] where should they be? [17:38] What times should they be? [17:39] Who are the people that we should be talking to? [17:41] Even phase two or this years project was a growth [17:44] out of last year because our community partners [17:47] were talking about, “Well, we should figure out [17:50] “what some of those leaders say.” [17:51] I said, “We can help you do that.”

[17:52] So it really is more of a partnership [17:55] and seeing where that sweet spot is [17:57] between the research side and also what the community needs. [18:01] I mean the end goal I think for me and for most researchers [18:04] who are involved at the university [18:06] is we want our research to be meaningful, [18:08] to be relevant, and to be useful. [18:10] To make a difference. [18:11] Right, to make a difference. [18:12] I mean that why I got into this, [18:14] this is because I really believe that I can make [18:15] a difference, and so I think that’s what I really try to do. [18:20] Even going back to year one, [18:23] thinking about how do we disseminate [18:24] the findings of the project [18:27] I mean we could’ve easily written a journal paper, (laughs) [18:30] which we did. Right. [18:31] But we also wrote a community report, [18:33] we also wrote one page fact sheets [18:35] that are in English and Spanish [18:36] so that the community could understand [18:39] what the project was and what were finding [18:41] and what we’re recommending. [18:43] And we’ve really I guess try to be transparent [18:47] and share data with out partners. [18:48] So going back, doing presentations, [18:51] like in Columbus for example we’re working with [18:54] the Engaging Diversity Committee of The Chamber of Commerce. [18:57] I’ve done lots of presentations now [18:59] for the Chamber of Commerce and they’ve become [19:01] a great partner, sending information, aside from our project [19:05] but just things, “Hey I read this, I thought you might be interested in that” and vise versa.

[19:11] Well, it’s interesting to me that there seems to be [19:14] a growing movement within the academy in this direction [19:18] and I’m pleased that we’re able to kind of spark that [19:21] with The Rural Futures Institute. [19:22] I had a great meeting yesterday with the Great Plains idea, [19:26] clinical and translational research group [19:29] and we were very focused on community advisory boards [19:33] and getting that engagement. [19:35] So, hats off to you for the work that you’ve done. [19:38] Well listen, a year ago we launched our Rural Futures Fellows Program you were enthusiastically selected [19:46] I will tell you as a member of that inaugural class, [19:49] and as we talk about harnessing the intellectual energy [19:53] of the University of Nebraska and its partners [19:58] to possibly impact the future of humankind [20:01] that sounds like a perfect job description for Athena Ramos [20:05] (laughs out loud) [20:06] So we’re just very proud to be associated with you. [20:08] Anything you’d like to add Athena today. [20:09] Thank you, I’m associated [20:11] I’m glad to be associated with you and with RFI too, [20:14] so thank you. [20:15] Thank you. Well listen, we hope that you’ll stay in touch [20:18] with The Rural Futures Institute through Facebook, Twitter, [20:23] Instagram, LinkedIn, [20:26] we’re covering all the bases, [20:29] and know that we will be back soon [20:31] with another edition of Catch Up With Chuck [20:33] where we will be talking with real people, [20:35] looking at real places that demonstrate that [20:38] thriving rural communities are a legitimate [20:40] best choice for worthwhile living. [20:42] Thanks for joining us.

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