Sisterhood is often a description of a community of women with shared goals or interests. Erika Hood was recognized as a Distinguished Young Woman this spring for both her paid community engagement work as Community Research & Dissemination Coordinator at the Center for Health Disparities (a partnership of MetroHealth with Case Western Reserve University), and her decade of facilitating and co-founding See You at the Top, an out-of-school time youth outdoor sports program that is a vehicle of cultural awareness, leadership development, and academic enrichment. Her nominator was her actual sister, Ebony Hood, who works in community relations at the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.
Erika co-founded See You at the Top as part of a family affair. She, along with her mother and sister, were watching the Winter Olympics and noticed the lack of diversity. Her mom said, you had the opportunity to ski when you were in school, let’s take some kids out skiing and snowboarding.
Erika reached out to youth and organizations that are connected to youth in her Lee-Harvard area to have fun learning sports in which they are traditionally underrepresented. (Lee-Harvard was built as an alternative to the other suburbs in the 1920’s when racist housing policy spurred suburbs with racial covenants. The neighborhood itself was Miles Heights Village before being incorporated into the City of Cleveland. It was a racially-integrated middle-class community since the 1920’s with Ohio’s first African American mayor and it has remained a popular home to African-Americans after incorporation to Cleveland.)
Erika got a Neighborhood Connections grant from the Cleveland Foundation for a 6-week session of See You at the Top. When that ended, they were saddened by the abrupt end to their time with the youth participants and, over the course of 10 years, they developed 10 months of programming each year that include sports like rock-climbing, running, tennis, biking and rowing. See You at the Top has been engaging and mentoring youth for ten yers now.
Erika started working at the Center for Health Disparities in February and spent the last six years at the Case Western Reserve University Prevention Research Center for Healthy Neighborhoods (PRCHN).
When asked to describe her nonprofit career of community engagement in a single word or phrase, she says: “learning experience.”
“I stumbled across public health in 2012, when I experienced a layoff in social services and got a job at Case Western. I was shown at that moment: my connections to people and engagement work was right on time, as there was a shift in public health to do community engagement work in a more genuine way.”
“The more I become engaged in the work, there is still so much to learn and so many wonderful people to learn from, she explains. “I am not some engagement guru. Engagement is a bilateral process, there is always so much more to learn. I make it a priority to build genuine relationships.”
She may not want to think she is a guru, but she has education and experience that positions her well to excel in public health in an equity context. Besides more than 10 years of her own time organizing youth around outdoor recreation and leadership in her Cleveland neighborhood, she spent a combined four years working for Cuyahoga County doing case management and coordinating employment services. Having sharpened her skills with various courses on engagement and leadership in addition to a Master of Education, Adult Learning and Development/Training from Cleveland State University, her toolbox is poised for her career.
To Ebony, her sister is “the absolute queen of community engagement…She presented research at the America Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Conference. However, what makes her work unique, is that she fought to make sure that there was resident (the people/the community) representation at the conference to help present the research!”
To accomplish this, Erika says that the community engagement was baked-in, not simply a check box in a process or an afterthought. The strategy was to include residents from start to finish.
“We knew we wanted to engage our community members with this, including any dissemination. As soon as we knew APHA was an option for us, we had to have our residents there as authors… and then take it a step further to get funding to get them there-show them we were a team, and we were going to present this together.” She proved she values the community by committing to the process when community travel dollars were not in the research budget. What else would you expect when the presentation was on lessons learned on a community approach to public health?
On the job, Erika has learned a lot about how to be effective in this field, most importantly, being transparent as a person and an agency and focus on relationship-building.
Authentic engagement can be tough when “in the past, there has been a lot done to community members and for community members without their input or without their knowledge really…You have to build relationships,’ and she emphasizes, “be transparent before any research project is underway to build that trust.”
She suggests researching the community to be knowledgeable and respectful: “sitting back and listening and observing, but not in a creepy way, talking to people, learning who the experts are in the community, who they look to for their information… and then recognizing them [the built-in experts].”
For many public health practitioners, scholarly articles, journals, researchers and clinicians are our trusted sources of knowledge. Our community members utilize churches, community organizations, community health workers, home visitors, and even family members are their sources of information.
While at PRCHN, she worked on REACH initiatives, which stands for Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health, under the umbrella of Health Improvement Partnership (HIP)-Cuyahoga, a consortium of more than 100 organizations. As one strategy, Erika recruited, trained, and engaged trusted, grassroots community health ambassadors. Other initiatives included engaging residents to improve access to healthy foods through the healthy retail project, increasing opportunities for physical activity through shared use agreements, and facilitating linkages between health clinics and community resources.
She also had the opportunity to take part as a contributing instructor on a CWRU study abroad course in bioethics in Costa Rica. The course considers the bioethics of public health by comparing the radically different healthcare systems of the United States and Costa Rica and the effect these systems have on health outcomes in these countries.
Her biggest takeaway from the trip “was how a country made it [healthcare and wellness] a priority for their citizen. It’s the flip side of us. In America, we are fighting for healthcare access, a universal healthcare system. There, the government provided it as a right. They spend one tenth of what we spend in health care and their outcomes are similar to ours. And here, are barriers we place in front of our own citizens… We have a lot to learn from smaller countries who actually makes it work.”
Keys to the work are being genuine and being held accountable. “I’m a true conduit between my community members that I serve and the organizations that I represent.”
She thinks community members are also attracted to her off-beat Gemini personality besides her lengthy and in-depth work to build trust and communication.
Among her mentors, she counts Don Slocum from Neighborhood Leadership Institute because he gave her an opportunity to do engagement work on a deeper level for infant mortality work and has always allowed her room to spread her wings. According to her, having his 40 plus years in community engagement as a resource, has helped her tremendously on her journey.
Erika challenges the systems in a segregated world that tries to divide humans, her sister wrote, breaking down barriers where she is often the only African-American woman at the table.
“There isn’t one instance” Erika can point to that illustrates the challenge of representing your race and gender or address misconceptions and cultural differences.
“It’s a constant space that I live in.” Lots of people doing the research are opposite the demographics of the populations that they are studying, so Erika is involuntarily the spokesperson for that community. Other times, “you have to stand up when you see assumptions being made or when you see things designed appropriately.”
The City of Cleveland is right at the heart of the health equity/structural racism conversation, especially as a major health care hub.
“We’ve positioned ourselves at the county to be ready to talk about it, but the action behind it … we just don’t know what to do, there are no quick fixes, no band-aids. Every day you have to speak up and be accountable to a community of people whose voices are not represented in the work that we do,” said Erika.
Erika believes that it is important to take time for yourself, “Self-care is imperative! I love to travel, shop, snowboard, and spend time with my family. My new pleasure has been kayaking on the Cuyahoga River, oh, and I love to veg out on the Bravo network, and shows like Insecure and Black-ish.”