To be young, gifted, and Black.
by Leo Adam Biga
The phrase comes from the Nina Simone song by Weldon Irvine that celebrates the brilliance of Lorraine Hansberry. The sentiment might just as well describe Omaha public health advocate Aja Anderson, recipient of the President’s Award for community service at the January 16th, 2023, MLK Memorial Luncheon in Omaha.
Community service has been front and center for Anderson, CEO of The Wellbeing Partners since her youth. Living her purpose has guided this millennial throughout her still burgeoning career.
“I have a personal mission statement that motivates and drives me to continue doing the work I do,” Anderson said, “which is to create generational change while helping and inspiring others to lead with authenticity, confidence, humility, kindness, and integrity. As it relates to health, the goal ultimately is to create long-term change, not just a one-off change or improvement.”
The Omaha Central High School and University of Nebraska at Omaha grad grew up in a single-parent home. Her mother, Lesley Dean, worked in community relations with the Omaha Public Schools. “There were community programs that, whether I liked it or not, I had to be involved in growing up,” said Anderson. Two programs, she is grateful she participated in are Upward Bound, which promotes higher education and community service, and Bridges to Healthcare, which exposes students to health professions. “Those experiences really helped shape and mold my passion for and interest in health.”
She worked as a community health educator, first for the State of Nebraska and then Douglas County Health. Her outreach included heading the Metro Omaha Tobacco Action Coalition (MOTAC).
She helped form the African American Young Professionals Initiative with Empowerment Network support. The group merged into the Urban League of Nebraska’s young professionals’ unit. She led the North Omaha Community Care Coalition.
Anderson is perhaps best known for the seven years she spent with Charles Drew Health Center, serving as care manager for its school-based health center at Northwest High, then as operations manager for all four school-based health centers before becoming community engagement manager and, finally, development director.
She was not looking for a career change when The
Wellbeing Partners (TWP) opportunity presented itself. The advocacy, collaboration and education focused nonprofit serves Sarpy, Cass, Douglas, and Pottawattamie counties “I felt like it was a great fit and it allows me to expand my reach and impact,” she said. “TWP brings players and stakeholders to the table around such topics as mental health and affordable housing for communication across the board about issues, resources and how we can work together to address them. It’s a huge piece of our collaboration.
“We work with our service area’s county health departments to form the Regional Health Council. We bring them together to have a stronger presence and force in making change.”
Collaboration is key in public health.
“Public health is a very complex field. It encompasses many things – from housing to food insecurity to access to healthcare to transportation. In order to really make a change and have an impact you can’t have one person at the table from the healthcare system because you have all these different components that play into the wellbeing and health of a community. So, the most powerful way to make change is to collaborate with others who have some stake in what you’re trying to target.”
TWP runs interference to make things happen.
“We are the convener, the connector, even the catalyst, to both corporate and community wellbeing.”
She said before the merger of LiveWell Omaha and WELLCOM to form The Wellbeing Partner in 2020, “the health emphasis in the two sectors was separate and it really shouldn’t be.”
“If you’re a part of a corporation or a business you’re also a part of this community. Employees of organizations reside in communities where they may experience disparities. Partners connect that gap to ensure that wellbeing is embedded into the way our communities and businesses operate so that we can create an overall healthy community that thrives.”
TWP’s work largely occurs behind the scenes.
“We really work to bring folks together in carrying out programs, strategies, and interventions. We also help in the development and creation of programs and bring on organizations who can then take a program on, run with it and work to get the desired outcomes.”
Head to Heart is a TWP-initiated program that recently graduated its first cohort of barbers and stylists to serve as mental health first-responders. They received training from Omaha’s Center for Holistic Development and Maryland-based “PsychoHairapy” practitioner Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka. Funding comes from the Sherwood Foundation.
Mbilishaka has a curriculum covering the fraught history of Black people and their hair, Anderson said. Barber shops and beauty parlors are already grassroots mental health centers where customers discuss problems. The program is starting in North Omaha, where it goes by the Harambee Project.
“Barbers and stylists, like faith-based leaders, are typically trusted members of the community,” Anderson said. “We arm these leaders with mental health education tools and resources for their clients.”
A new cohort is to be trained this spring.
“The hope is to remove the stigma of mental illness so that community members are more inclined to actually access resources. Our goal is to replicate that program with different populations and community partners. We may have a Head to Heart program in South Omaha that speaks to the Latino community. It is fully my intent to bring more programs focusing on BIPOC populations who experience higher rates of health disparities and inequities. If we’re going to tackle wellbeing in this four-county area, we really have to start with those experiencing the most disparities. As long as those disparities exist then it’s really difficult to say we’re improving the overall health of this area,” she said.
A proposal to expand TWP’s reach in underserved BIPOC communities by training adults in youth mental health first aid has been recommended to receive economic recovery Cares Act funding.
“I feel our job as public health professionals and TWP is to bring to light available resources and make them more accessible to those who have trouble accessing or may be reluctant to access. That’s one of the aims of Head to Heart – meeting people where they are.”
It is part of a larger TWP initiative.
“We have a What Makes Us campaign about mental illness stigma reduction,” said Anderson. “It’s about getting people to open up and talk publicly about their personal experiences with mental health. TWP will stay on the forefront with mental health. It’s one of our priority focuses.”
Anderson’s open about her own mental health struggles. As a leader within her workplace, community and family, she battles anxiety stemming from the pressure of achieving at high levels, managing expectations, maintaining productivity and balancing the responsibilities of her many roles.
To stay healthy she practices self-care by focusing on same day tasks, taking regular vacations and staycations, engaging in positive self-talk and reading affirmations. She spends time with friends and family, soaks up sunshine, listens to music and gets plenty of sleep.
When things get tough, she said, “I have an amazing network of like-minded friends near and far for support. I am not defined by my anxiety. What makes me ‘me’ is my commitment to and passion for the people and things I love most.”
Facing fears comes with the territory for any aspirational leader. She’s faced her share running for the Omaha School Board, opening her own business during the height of the pandemic, and taking on the Wellbeing CEO role.
Her entrepreneurial venture with The Selfie Spot in Benson lasted a year. “I had just started school to finish my master’s degree and transitioned from the community engagement role to the development role at Charles Drew. I was overly ambitious. I thought I would be able to manage a business, go to school and take on a new executive role. I just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t feasible. I learned about the need to put my own health and wellbeing first.”
She feels part of a strong sisterhood of Black women whose footsteps she’s following. “Black women have mentored me and fed into my own personal and professional development.”
She gives a shoutout to her mentors:
Brenda Bell, Monica Beasley, Dionne Kirksey, Anitra Doleman, Brenda Council, Rev/ Portia Cavitt, Doris Lassiter, Emily Mwaja, Sherri Nared, Carolyn Williamson
Jasmine Harris, Dr. Keyonna King.
“Black men that have influenced me as mentors are Charles Drew CEO Kenny McMorris and Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services administrator Stephen Jackson. While not a Black woman, community consultant Mary Balluff has played a significant role in my journey and advancement in the public health field.”
As for her own leadership style, Anderson said, “I’m a very participative leader. I like to involve those I am working with every step of the way, also recognizing there are times when I need to step in and make the decision on what’s going to happen. I like to lead by example in how I do things, how I manage relationships, how I treat people. I hear from others that I’m very relatable and approachable and I think that’s helped me get to the places I’ve gone and going to in public health.
“Public health is about working with and impacting the community and it’s hard to do that if you’re not relatable and approachable and not really rooted and invested in the community you’re in.”
She’s mindful of where she’s arrived at.
“Being a Black female CEO, having been an entrepreneur, having led small nonprofit organizations, my hope is that I’m now inspiring others. Hopefully, other young Black women will want to be in leadership roles and do it in a manner that is respectable, influential, and kind.”
The surge of Black women in C suite roles has not escaped her attention.
“To see other Black women, I have grown up with or been on the ground with doing community work take on leadership positions has really been amazing. I hope they have a circle of Black women helping and motivating them along the way as well.”
Unlike some peers who’ve left Omaha, she’s remained invested in her hometown.
“Omaha is what I have known. It may have been different had I went off to college. But this is my home, this is where my family is, where my heart is, where I one day hope to raise children. I want the best for all those around me and those I care about. The only way I feel I can ensure they get the best is to contribute to the best being provided.”
The other thing keeping her here, she said, is
“The encouragement, motivation and acknowledgement from my family, friends and peers.”
“Being in the nonprofit field and public health arena, witnessing the lives you touch or change, helps me to make it another day in doing the things I do.”