Five Questions on Leadership, Health, and Equity with Yesenia Cuello

We spoke to community leaders in and around our Healthy Places NC counties to gather their thoughts on leadership development, capacity building, and the role of equity in their work during this critical time in our state and country.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.

I am 28 years old, and I am a former child farmworker. I have lived in rural eastern NC since I was five years old when my family and I made the transition from California to North Carolina. My mom was a single parent who worked at a hog farm and in the tobacco fields in order to provide for us. My sisters and I eventually joined her and worked the fields during the summer as well.  I was introduced to NC FIELD when I was almost 18 years old, studying how farmworker’s housing was directly impacting their health. That year I also joined NC FIELD’s youth group, and it was here that I learned more about the systems that are in place that discriminate against the Latinx community and the lack of access to resources; this was heightened by the aftermath of hurricane Florence and now with COVID-19. It also motivated me to continue doing the work that we do because we are an organization created with the help of farmworkers for farmworkers and there is more progress to be made.

Why is it important to invest in community leaders?

COVID-19 and hurricane response capacity really highlight what hasn’t been built in rural eastern NC and underscores the importance of community leaders. It is imperative that foundations that want to facilitate healthy rural communities and opportunities for vulnerable and marginalized residents understand the type of support we need. To see positive change and a return on investment in rural communities, there must be an investment in capacity building of residents.

How have past and current health improvement efforts in your community affected your ability to respond to current crises? 

ACA (Affordable Care Act) outreach and enrollment staff from Access East and Greene County Health Care are the two most prominent organizations with a history of providing field-based direct services for health insurance in our service area. We also know recruiters from some local migrant education programs visit camps with workers under age twenty-two, and they often address health and safety. Probably the most significant change for NC FIELD has been the collaborative relationship with Kinston Community Health Center. We help them when they need volunteers, and they help us with planning, grants assistance, and innovation. Most recently, we were invited to help in a project to distribute internet connections and laptops to migrant and seasonal families and camps with limited access.

How does your work give power to voices that have not traditionally had power? 

The agricultural workforce is afraid. Fear is at the heart of our daily lives. Fear to become sick or injured; fear we will tell the truth and be fired or blacklisted; fear people will become even less understanding than they are today. The work we do, often through youth who are advocates and activists in training, allow the community to talk without fear they will be identified. They can speak out and we understand completely. They can vent their frustration, and we share culture, language, and an intimate understanding of their circumstances. Also, our consistency and transparency are important. They understand we have to look for the resources ourselves many times.

How has equity played a role in your work and contributed to the success in your community?

Equity is the goal in my community. Health equity; the right to exist and drive a car to the grocery store without fear of arrest; the right to demand occupational safety; the right to adequately-staffed organizations unbounded by the systemic racism that exists today. Achieving equity requires documentation, advocacy, and systems work. It requires the elimination of racism and the presence of transparency in federal programs. We are nowhere close to achieving that. There is so much more to be done. Equity will never exist without partnerships that work to address the systemic changes contributing to the problems.