Editor’s Note: In the story below, we meet Genoveva Islas-Hooker, a PreventObesity.net Leader who is helping to build healthier communities in her work for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program. The profile comes to the Inside Track courtesy of our friends at Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, which is working to implement policies and environmental changes supporting healthy eating and active living. Islas-Hooker also recently spoke about Signs of Process in California and appeared on a PreventObesity.net webinar looking at shared use agreements.
Stepping over self-doubt, Genoveva Islas-Hooker stood before representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. She was the only Latina presenter at a prominent state meeting, and the organizer wanted her to emphasize the serious inequities among Latinos. “In her instructions to me I was hearing, ‘You come from a farm worker background but you have to represent every Latino,’” Islas-Hooker says. “And I was thinking, ‘How can I ever do that? That’s way too much pressure!”
Veva took a deep breath and began. “I told them my father died at 55 from a heart attack because of a lack of services in our rural area. That my sister died at 39 from cancer and that I’ve buried one of my sons from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) when he was 3 months old. I talked about how lucky my grandparents were for having a long life together and that each generation in my family brings shorter life spans. I described the vulnerability created by health disparities. I grew up knowing my parents and grandparents while my nephew can barely remember his mother’s face. It was hard to share. But I believe that it’s important to share these stories and help others see the impact and pain of inequity. People deserve to live a full lifetime. Not just some of us. All of us.”
This wasn’t her first experience representing life in the San Joaquin Valley of California. As a second generation Latina whose parents were born and raised in Mexico, Islas-Hooker has been speaking up for immigrant farm workers her entire life.
As the regional program director for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program and the Project Director for their Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) grant, Islas-Hooker worked with her partners and residents to design a leadership development training program and curriculum. Titled “Powerful People: Building Leadership for Healthy Communities,” the program enables those who have traditionally been marginalized to speak for themselves.
Islas-Hooker’s drive stems from her family. Her paternal grandfather came to the United States as part of the Bracero Program, which was enacted by Congress to fill the extreme shortage of farm labor workers during World War II. Her extended family have been farm workers ever since. At age 12, she joined them in the fields — but she knew her future would be different.
When Islas-Hooker was young, her mother attended United Farm Workers (U.F.W.) meetings in Delano. Islas-Hooker remembers doodling the U.F.W. eagle in the first grade and feeling pride in her community, knowing this group was standing up for her parents. She wanted to help, too.
As a girl, she interpreted for her relatives at social service and health care appointments, which piqued her interest in the health field. When health matters were particularly sensitive or complex, she felt the weight of her responsibility within a system that didn’t support her community. There were no interpretation services, few materials produced in Spanish and no coordinated care.
Mr. Sanchez, her sixth grade teacher and first Latino teacher, told his 25 sixth-graders that only two of them would make it to college. “He was very attractive, so I thought fondly of him,” Islas-Hooker jokes. “And I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to be one of those two.’”
She was. Her parents’ educations ended at fifth grade, but Islas-Hooker became the first in her family to achieve a graduate degree, a master’s degree in public health from Loma Linda University.
Islas-Hooker eventually took on a job supervising the health education department for a health insurance company. She noticed some members and their children repeated the same weight management classes, and asked one woman what else she could do to help her. The woman replied: “Veva, you’ve done a wonderful job teaching me about what to eat and how to stay active, but I live in a place where we have no park and my kids can’t play outside because of cars speeding down my road and gangs, so I let them play videos inside where I know they are safe. Also, I don’t drive, so I have to wait for my husband’s day off so he can to take me to the grocery store. Because I don’t go that often, I buy things that I know are going to last until the next trip. I can’t just buy fruits and vegetables.”
That’s when Islas-Hooker began to appreciate the impact of environments in shaping behaviors.
So far, 175 residents from eight counties have completed the Powerful People course. They’ve learned how community policies and environments affect people’s choices for eating healthy and being active. They’ve learned to build relationships with decision makers, give presentations, resolve conflict and advocate for change. “We created a process where residents identify what they want to work on, and we help support their priorities,” Islas-Hooker said.
Many new immigrants are repressed from advocating for change because of language barriers, apathy in thinking nothing will change and even fear of reprisal. “We have communities in the Valley that are 90 percent Latino who have never had a Latino representative, no City Council member, Board of Supervisor or anyone that’s Latino in an elected or appointed capacity. And it’s ludicrous that we have the majority, but we’re not represented,” Islas-Hooker notes.
Powerful People graduates are changing that picture. They’ve achieved agreements between schools and cities to share facilities, enabling children more access to safe places to play. They’ve led Safe Routes to School programs, resulting in new and improved sidewalks and crosswalks for children’s daily commutes. They’ve made it possible for parents and students to buy fresh produce at school-based farm stands. And they’re joining decision-making boards and committees.
When one Mexican-born Powerful People graduate spoke before the school board she told Islas-Hooker she never imagined herself talking to the third largest school district in the state — and having her words matter.
“It was very rewarding for me to hear that. It reminded me of my experiences growing up,” Islas-Hooker says. “I do see things changing, people becoming more engaged and involved in making decisions to create healthier communities.”
And Islas-Hooker, too, is rising. After her nerve-wracking presentation, the Institute of Medicine twice invited her to speak at national convenings. She is also now a board member for the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, California Food Policy Advocates and the California Institute for Rural Studies.
“I’m very critical of myself,” she said. “But I’m proud of how I brought attention to this work and what we’re doing in the Valley.”