Interview with Alia Southworth, MPH ‘12
Manager of Chronic and Infectious Diseases programs, Asian Health Coalition Interviewed by: Nomin Bayarsaikhan, UIC SPH Career Services Intern
Why did you choose to go into the field of public health? How did you get started? My undergrad was actually in the hard sciences and I have my Bachelor’s degree in Human Biology. But, my love for public health really came to light when I studied abroad in Mexico and realized that I could not be stuck in a lab all day. I wanted to do something related to the public and community and public health would allow me to do that. It was a perfect marriage between my science background and my love for reaching out and helping the community. I applied to UIC SPH for grad school and have been in the field ever since.
What are the main duties, functions, responsibilities of your job? I am currently the manager of Chronic and Infectious Diseases programs at the Asian Health Coalition. This also includes women’s health along with diseases such as diabetes. The main goal at the Asian Health Coalition is to improve the health of all immigrants. Our lens has been on Asian Americans, but we have expanded into working with African immigrants with similar issues. We want to ensure health equity for everyone and we partner with community based organizations all over the area. Through this, we are able to cover a large variety of populations that all have different ethnicities, cultures, and languages. We help community based organizations get what they need in order to help their communities. We are the ones that search for grants, write grants, develop programs, train community workers, and implement the programs. Therefore, the coalition serves as a technical assistant that provides training, collects and analyzes data, conducts dissemination, and gives reports. I have a hand in all of these procedures and it changes from day to day, so it is difficult to say that I have a set routine or main duties that I complete on a daily basis. However, the constant change is exciting and I love to see what the next day has waiting for me.
Can you tell me more about Substance Abuse Prevention Program and the Coalition for Asian Substance Abuse Prevention (CASAP)? CASAP was created to prevent alcohol and tobacco use in Chinatown. It is currently on its 7th year and was established by a grant called DFC or Drug Free Communities with funding provided by SAMHSA. We work with youth from grades 6-12 to empower them and let them know that they do not need to drink and smoke. Also, it is important for the community to make sure that the new generation is aware of harmful substances, including e-cigarettes and marijuana. We implement different strategies, such as, putting up posters, giving training, and developing services in Chinese. We also make sure that the entire community, and not just the students are involved. We work with businesses and train workers on how to responsibly check ID’s and turn people away if they are not of age. Since the program focuses on community interaction, there is a youth-led after school program called “Reward and Reminder”, where students go to different businesses and ask to buy alcohol or tobacco. If the sales clerk checks for an ID and refuses, they receive a card that thanks them for keeping the community safe. If the sales clerk does not ask for an ID, or asks for one and gives the student alcohol or tobacco anyway, even if they are not of age, they receive a different card that reminds them to check for an ID and to always make sure that the buyer is of age. I want to clarify that the students never take the alcohol or cigarettes or complete the sale. If the sales clerk acts like they are going to sell it and asks for payment, the students then will hand them the card instead of payment. There was an intent to sell but not actual sell was made. There is no legal action and the police are not involved. However, there are compliance checks where legal action does take place if the sales clerk does not comply with checking ID’s and sells drinks or cigarettes to underage students. The youth-led program allows the sales clerks to have a chance to practice checking ID’s and complying with the law before the compliance checks are held. Since the whole community is involved, it is much more effective because everyone is able to keep each other in check.
Do you work with both Asian American immigrants and natural born citizens? Are there similarities and differences between the two groups? Yes, I do work with both. Many of them work and play together, so the differences aren’t really pronounced unless you really look for it. A lot of the natural born citizens are of the younger generation and we use them to help us communicate with their families. However, the biggest difference and barrier is definitely language. It is a lot easier to give surveys and conduct interviews when individuals have some English proficiency, but some immigrants might not even be able to read or write in their native language. This is where the community based organizations come in because they are able to better navigate and adapt to certain situations, so that our programs can be as helpful as they can be.
Are there large ethnic differences? If so, how do you make sure to account for them in the implemented programs? Yes, there definitely are and this is where the community based organizations come in once again to help us tailor the programs to specific communities. Of course, we first do our own homework and look at research and data and see what is out there. For example, certain cancers are higher in some ethnicities than others, so we look at it and work with organizations and make sure that our proposed program makes sense for them and the community. It can be difficult, though, because it is much more than just translating since we need to take into account the community’s culture. We try to tailor the program as much as possible to ascertain its effectiveness. For example, for our cardiovascular based programs, we look and find what the community eats and their traditional forms of exercise. We narrow down each community to make sure that our programs are relevant and relatable.
Do you think there is a correlation between substance abuse and mental health? Probably, but I can’t say for sure because I have no background in social work. Mental health is related to a lot of things and there are some huge stigmas, especially in certain communities. It is a constant battle but, behavioral and mental health are hot topics at the moment. It is becoming more integrated in all of our programs because some of the refugees and immigrants that we work with have gone through so much and many use tobacco, alcohol, and even food to cope.
Do you think that Asian American health issues are often forgotten about because of the model minority myth? Especially substance abuse and mental health? I think that it has some effect, but I think a bigger issue is the lack of disaggregated data. Asians and Asian Americans encompass a very large area and include people from many different countries. However, on census forms or other official forms of documents, people cannot just check their ethnicities, there is usually only one box that says “Asian” and once you check it, everyone goes into it and each ethnicity dilutes one another. It is difficult to separate the data and collect information for each ethnicity. For example, breast cancer is very prevalent in the Filipino community, but not the entire Asian population. We would not have known about it from just census forms because it does not allow that type of specificity. Diseases and other issues that we focus on tend to be at extremes; one community might have a very low rate, whereas, another community has a very high rate. This tends to make it seem average and people often forget or dismiss important health issues.
Sometimes, this enforces the model minority myth because people could easily look at the data and say that Asian Americans do not possess a high rate for health issues, when in reality, many communities do. Is it difficult to dispel traditional beliefs and give people the help they need? Yes, it can be very challenging because the health topics often put traditional and Western forms of treatment at odds. For example, the Hepatitis B vaccine is a great preventative measure; however, many Koreans believe that there is a natural way to be immune through herbs, such as ginseng, and other traditional herbal medicine. We want to respect people’s beliefs, but there is a fine line since people’s health are on the line. Prevention, overall, is not a well-received concept and it can be challenging to circumvent that. We try to go around it by letting people hear personal stories from the community. Obesity is another difficult issue to tackle because Asian Americans tend to suffer from the “skinny fat phenomenon” where they are at a higher risk for certain obesity-related illnesses at a lower BMI. We try to make the community aware of this issue and empower them to advocate for themselves and ask for tests when they visit their doctors. However, sometimes even the doctors dismiss them and do not administer the proper tests because they are not aware of this phenomenon. Therefore, we want to have a “two-prong approach” where we educate the community as well as health professionals.
Do you think that there should be more awareness about Asian American health issues? Yes! I think there should be and this goes back to data disaggregation. I believe that policy changes are important in making sure that multiple ethnicities are available for people to select, especially on the census. There needs to be data disaggregation and we need to stop lumping everything all into one. Also, the dissemination of information is a vital task. It can be difficult to take data, publish a paper, and integrate it into programs, but it is so important to get the information out there and raise more awareness. What part of this job do you find personally most satisfying? Most challenging? I would say that the most satisfying part is that I have a hand in everything. From finding out what is needed, getting funding, developing and evaluating programs, and implementing it into multiple communities, I am there for all of it. There is no typical day and it definitely keeps me on my toes. Being able to work with so many communities to make a difference is so satisfying, but it can also be very challenging. I have to work with many different languages and cultures and it can get frustrating sometimes, but I truly love what I do.
What do you like about working for a non-profit organization? What are some of the challenges? Non-profits are usually grant-funded and donation-based, so it comes with its own set of challenges and advantages. It can be difficult because if the political environment changes, then the funding environment can change as well. However, AHC is well-diversified with our grants, so it is pretty stable. Unfortunately, for our community based organizations, it can be a bit unstable. When the Illinois budget changed a few years ago, funding for many community organizations got cut and a lot of people had to be let go. On the other hand, non-profits are a great way to get experience and there are so many options, that you can shape it in any way you want and choose between different avenues. It is also a great way to gain experience and increase your perspective and knowledge.
What made you choose Asian Health Coalition? I started at AHC because I needed to complete a practicum for my MPH and worked on the Walkability Assessments for Childhood Obesity Program. After graduation, they asked me to come back and I have been managing various programs ever since. I actually was interested in working for the Hispanic and Latinx populations because of my study abroad experience and my ability to speak Spanish. However, AHC was a very welcoming and accepting community and I wanted to make a difference within the communities by reducing the lack of health information.
Do you have any advice for students who are interested in non-profits/public health/social work? Do it because you love it, not because you want to be rich. There is not a lot of money in this field, but it is very fulfilling and you get to make such a difference for so many people.
How has your MPH degree helped your career? Do you use what you learned in the classroom on a regular basis? It has helped me get a job and has kept my employed. It is very invaluable to me because it opened my eyes to different ways of thinking. I grew up in a non-diverse community, so getting my degree in public health has exposed me to many communities and has really given me a different perspective than what I grew up with. I would say that knowing general broad concepts would suffice and you really only need to know the basics. However, there were two elective courses that have helped me a lot: survey methodology and qualitative assessments. Also, some of the main lessons, such as, conducting literature reviews, grant writing, and program development, are essential and extremely relevant to what I do.