The Healthcare Executive Forum (HEF) of Western New York is very proud to recognize and award the following amazing individual as a “WNY Frontline Hero.”
Jessica Bauer Walker: The COVID Super Organizer
“WNY is a tight knit community and despite the issues, in a crisis people come together,” says Jessica Bauer Walker. A force of an individual, Jessica seems to pop-up everywhere throughout Western New York, appearing on TV, social media, or behind a food kitchen table—wherever and whenever there are people facing healthcare challenges, or just the challenges of daily survival. It is easy to compare her to a modern-day superhero, swooping in to truly save lives when people need help the most. As the Executive Director of CoNECT (Community Network for Engagement, Connection and Transformation- formerly and still including the Community Health Worker Network of Buffalo), and with numerous other titles that reflect the myriad projects with which she is involved, it quickly becomes apparent how lucky we are to have Jessica watching over our community, energetically organizing and fighting for those that sometimes need help fighting for themselves.
“I am a community health worker and organizer first and foremost! I appreciate the opportunity to be an organizer on a much higher level…but my background and passion is being on the front lines”
“I am a community health worker and organizer first and foremost! I appreciate the opportunity to be an organizer on a much higher level with many partners and all the projects I am working on now, but my background and passion is being on the front lines,” says Jessica. Apart from being a community health worker, trainer, and facilitator of collaborative projects across WNY, such as working with the Wellness team at Buffalo Public School #45, Jessica has worked in community building and civic engagement in local, national, and international contexts for years. She has served in AmeriCorps, the US Peace Corps, as an organizer in 2 presidential campaigns, a director of operations for Rock the Vote, and has won many national and local awards along the way.
“There is not really an average day for me. Every day is an adventure, especially now with the COVID pandemic,” says Jessica.
At the beginning of the outbreak, Jessica immediately began working to form a group of Buffalo’s various health-focused community organizations, to just get out good communication about COVID-19 to the community in languages people in our area’s neighborhoods could understand, with basic and clearly understandable messaging’ regarding how to protect oneself. Working with the Erie county health department, Jessica and her initially loose coalition of community health superheroes started immediately attending to the needs of those in WNY areas with the highest disparities. “We wanted people understand all about COVID,” says Jessica.
Eventually, Jessica, her colleagues, and their key contacts from throughout the area got together to formalize a bit more, to try to help even more members of our community. Acting together with leaders from PUSH Buffalo (People United for Sustainable Housing), the Buffalo Urban League, the Partnership for the Public Good (PPG) of Buffalo, Native American Community Services of Erie and Niagara Counties, and others, Jessica helped to lead a uniquely strong WNY team that touched on the health and wellbeing of just about every local neighborhood where disparities exist. Formalizing these tremendous resources under the initial name ANCHOR for rapid community response, Jessica explains, “The idea is that we would be an anchor for the community, with healthcare providers and workers all communicating to help each other better understand what is needed most in this crisis.” Reaching out to leaders across organizations, from grassroots groups to institutions. With all of this, Jessica, her current organization, and all the organizations involved, continue to carry out their own individual target goals for assisting others.
ANCHOR evolved as an online community meeting place of leaders on fighting COVID and supporting work related to other social determinants of health. Jessica explains, “We asked each other what’s going in a particular neighborhood, what can we be doing as a group to make people stay safe there, how can we make people understand how best to get the resources they need as well as the information needed along with that, such as how to wear masks, how to sanitize, and how to stay healthy?” The group brought together healthcare professionals and non-healthcare professionals to do things like setting up community trainings for food pantries workers, holding neighborhood meetings explaining new regulations for unemployment or welfare checks, mapping food safety issues while demonstrating how to safely handle groceries, and much more…generally tackling issues as they arose. “When we get the doctors with white coats and letters after their name to talk with community organizers and folks in the neighborhoods, people take notice,” says Jessica. While it might not be an exact statistical correlation that anyone could prove, you can absolutely bet that the great reduction in COVID-19 case numbers in Western New York through the Spring have a heck of a lot to do with the direct work of Jessica and her colleagues.
“The work we are doing has been top down, bottom up, and cross sectors,” says Jessica, denoting that she was full-on caring for others. “We were just getting going with all this COVID-fighting work, and then the ‘George Floyd’ tragedy happened. A lot of us are trained as community organizers, so we immediately began reaching out to activists to help ensure they considered protection from COVID spread and stayed safe while on the streets. Physicians and academics really helped to inform this group,” says Jessica. “We just connected the dots,” she says in a nonchalant way, pausing just enough to make one just imagine how difficult all this organizing really must have been. Then she elaborates that, “It is interesting because so many people had been working in silos,” says Jessica. “It was hard to open up this space to have high level people engage in conversations about safety and police. It has been very challenging, but necessary.”
One way to combat the challenges was for Jessica and the original ANCHOR team to start a project called ‘Freedom Schools Buffalo’ to help youth and families. The project is an emerging multiracial collective of frontline organizations and community educators working toward justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in Western New York, inspired by local Haudenosaunee/Native American culture, the Freedom Summer of the Civil Rights movement, and a framework of liberation through social justice education. They are looking at new ways of educating that have a holistic approach and connect health and education. Freedom Schools are proud to say they are organized from a place of strength, healing and resilience in the community. Jessica is humble to say, “I am helping to head this with many others, as it really helps to connect the dots for our families.”
The natural question to ask when hearing of Jessica’s extraordinary efforts is whether all this takes a toll; isn’t it all overwhelming? In reply, Jessica sounds like Superwoman telling someone calmly, ‘It’s my pleasure ma’am’ after just saving her life from the clutches of an evil villain. Jessica says, “I have kids myself and am a single parent. A lot of my work is focused on public health and education. Initially it was challenging, but I soon realized that this is what I have been talking about my whole life, getting the right people together working on the right things. The system didn’t work before the pandemic. I have learned the institutions are often rigid and not fast to change,” she says. Jessica further relates, “Sometimes it takes something like this to happen to shock the system. There have been very important differences made. All of a sudden paycheck protection is possible, evictions can be halted, water can be turned back on for those with an immediate need, and so on.” Interestingly, COVID has shown us what is possible in a short amount of time when resources are focused on those in need within our communities.
“This work is personal to me,” says Jessica. “I do it because I have a lot of lived experience. I advocate for other families like I advocate for my own kids. I really believe in what I do and practice what I believe in. I know my kids will do better when ALL kids do better”
“At the same time,” Jessica says, “it really is hard as a single mother because as I am out working on all this, I have to also be a parent and support my family , in addition to all the other families I am working with.” Yet rather than a detriment, Jessica beams with positivity, seeing this time as greatly beneficial to her family and everyone in the community. “This work is personal to me,” says Jessica. “I do it because I have a lot of lived experience. I advocate for other families like I advocate for my own kids. I really believe in what I do and practice what I believe in. I know my kids will do better when ALL kids do better. I love working with parents and youth. It is worth the challenge. I hope my kids will see that and understand, because they will be the generation to lead the change,” says Jessica. No sentiment during the last several months may be more beautifully put that this.
Although nothing about Jessica seems common, like most heroes, deflecting the praise to others on the front lines is commonplace with her. Jessica notes, “I’ve heard of many people working so hard to help others in our community during the COVID pandemic that they were utilizing their own personal resources and time to arrange for things like food delivery and other necessities for people in dire need throughout WNY, with little energy for their own families at the most difficult of times. I also had several friends that lost family members. For all of these primary helpers, they really need our support,” she says. “Healthcare leaders in Western New York should know that it is really important to say to all of them, “You need support too, and we are here for you.” When reflecting upon all her colleagues working so hard to help out, individual-by-individual, in the city of good neighbors, Jessica just has a very clear message. “Thank you! Don’t lose hope. We love and appreciate you. You are making the biggest difference.”
Jessica, all of Western New York hopes that by now you realize we all love and appreciate you too for the true difference you are making for each of us.