We awarded our 2016 Healthy Community Leadership Awards (HCLA) to five amazing Bostonians: EJ Slater, Lisa Melara, Raheem Baraka, Edna de Paula and Michelle Cook. The HCLA is given to individuals who are either immigrants, persons of color, or from an underrepresented group and have been leaders in improving the health of our Boston community and addressing racial and ethnic health inequities in the city. In honor of Black History Month and the legacy of leadership, strength and courage from the African American community, we want to feature a “spotlight” from our interviews with each awardee to learn about their inspiring work and why they love our community.  

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Spotlight: Michelle Cook

Michelle was born in Boston and currently resides in Dorchester. She is the owner of Operation B Fit, an organization whose mission is to support individuals and families in developing a healthy lifestyle. A self-proclaimed bike guru, Michelle is the first non-white woman in Boston to become a licensed cycling instructor. She is the founder of Roxbury Rides, a group of cyclists living in Roxbury and Dorchester who encourage brown folks to bike and support the building of better biking and walking infrastructure.

What connects you to Boston?

Michelle: This is a community with people who know me, know what I stand for, know that what I do is bigger than me, and that [my work] is all out of love. This is where I grew up, in Roxbury and then Dorchester. This is who I know, the people who I am comfortable with, who I went to school with. Everything is Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan… There are many times I’ve actually wanted to move, just to go somewhere else, but I love it here… Something always draws me back here, so I think it’s the universe telling me my work is not done here.

How did you get involved with community work?

Michelle: I started with my business Operation B Fit which is a holistic health and wellness company. I started doing boot camps free to the public and worked with the Franklin Park Coalition. I did nutritional groups with people, now for about 5 years, then it progressed to biking, which I’ve been doing for about 2 years… My work is a passion of mine and I’m passionate about what I do. I do a lot of it at no cost, because I feel like that will come after the fact

What inspires you?

Michelle: What inspires me is the community. Seeing the changes that we can make in our health, and spiritually, and in our whole being, and seeing how positive the changes can be. It just inspires me to keep moving forward, even on those days when I want to say forget it… I love my people and that’s what I really, really want to stress. I love my people, I love my community, and that’s what will always keep me moving.

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Spotlight: Edna de Paula

Edna has lived in Brighton for 26 years with her two daughters, whom inspired her to become involved in community work. She is a Healthy Community Champion (HCC) with Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation. She was instrumental in securing four of the seven store partners for Re-Think Your Drink, a campaign where stores partner with HCC’s to provide educational materials to their customers on healthier beverage options. Edna has dedicated hours to learning complex transportation planning terms to attend and understand MassDOT public meetings and engage with others in meetings in order to elevate underrepresented voices.

What connects you to Boston?

Edna: I love this neighborhood, I love this community, and I love these people here. It is very mixed. Lots of people from different parts of the world, they all add something.

How did you get involved with community work?

Edna: I became involved because I love my neighborhood, but we don’t have access to healthy food choices. The quality of food available has decreased since fast food is quick and people are eating too much junk food. I want to help educate people. Changes happen little by little, education is very important, many people don’t know about the benefits of [healthy eating] but once they do, they are very receptive.

What inspires you?

Edna: It is inspiring because I know [healthy eating] is good for my health and my daughters. We started taking out the sugar and things in our house and we saw it had good results. And then we kept it going. Now I can talk to the church because the church has a big group of people, they are friends and family, and we now have more information from the CDC to share with them.

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Spotlight: Raheem Baraka

Raheem is the Executive Director of Baraka Community Wellness, an organization committed to reducing health disparities and healthcare costs for vulnerable communities. He was born and raised in Boston, and works in the Roxbury and Dorchester areas. He has a passion for nutrition, physical fitness and wellness education, and is a licensed and certified fitness instructor with a primary focus on exercise physiology and behavioral and lifestyle change. He is one of 18 leaders participating in Food Solutions New England Network Leadership Institute, a regional effort focused on growing and strengthening local food systems through a racial equity lens.

What connects you to Boston?

Raheem: This is a great place. I grew up here between Mattapan and Roxbury, and it brings back some serious memories working here now. It’s great to be connected back into this community and see it flourish. There are some issues and challenges around gentrification and who is this being built for and who is included, those are things need to be talked through at a deeper level.

How did you get involved with community work?

Raheem: I was Director of Fitness and Wellness for MGH for about seven years, where I realized my passion for prevention and going upstream. Being in a place that values treatment over prevention made me realize I needed to bring this work out into the community, where it was needed the most and has the biggest traction and support. I wanted to focus on the issues and challenges of the social determinants of poor health outcomes in relationship to communities that are at risk and marginalized, and are in desperate need of solutions to change habits and craft ways for empowerment.

What inspires you?

Raheem: I hate to say that I am kind of inspired by the negative, but there are massive disparities. So when you look at a city like Boston, that is as progressive as it is and as innovative as it is seen in the eyes of our country and the world, you would think that everything would be perfectly okay in the ground, in communities, with balance and equity across the board. I’m driven by my complete disbelief of the fact that these disparities actually exist in 2016. That we can have a city that is the mecca of hospitals and healthcare and access to those types of resources, while the disparities in Boston are very similar to that of Jackson, Mississippi.

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Spotlight: Lisa Melara

Lisa was born in Bui Dong Refugee Camp in Malaysia and resettled in New York as a child. She has lived in East Boston for six years, where she is a Healthy Community Champion, Union Capital Boston Member and Parent Partner – to name a few commitments. She helped organize residents to create and open the East Boston Community Soup Kitchen in September, where volunteers serve lunch and dinner every Tuesday to 120-200 community members from all walks of life.  As a parent of three sons with disabilities, Lisa is an advocate for full inclusion education for children with Autism. She supports parents through the complicated individualized education program (IEP) process to ensure they are having their voices heard.

What connects you to Boston?

Lisa: This city is very unique. It is a community city. Here, in East Boston, you get a diverse group of people and we all work on different projects, but we all connect. And the diversity is huge, I’m Asian, we have a huge Hispanic, Portuguese, Arabic, and African American populations, so we really merge here. People truly care too. We have a lot of strong community leaders in East Boston. A lot of people that are all working towards the same goal.

How did you get involved with community work?

Lisa: My son was diagnosed with autism and it’s been a long battle to get him all the services needed. One school failed him really badly. So I did a lot of research and cold calling, I called every person on the list until someone bit. I was persistent until it paid off. For me, someone who is educated and speaks English, I still had to jump through all these hoops. I still worry about all the other kids who get left behind. So that’s how I got into helping other families in my community. I help parents go through the steps and when the individual voice doesn’t work, we do a group voice.

Then I became a Healthy Community Champion because the announcement looked interesting. It looked interesting because of the health initiative to help the community. East Boston really needed it.

What inspires you?

Lisa: I started helping families because I felt like there was a need. With being an HCC, I felt there was a need for active transit and smoke-free housing work in East Boston. The community really comes together for everything and I really like to be a part of that. I volunteer a lot, and it’s really what you put into it… Good work should be rewarded and recognized and it’s not always. A lot of Union Capital Boston members are the unknown, we do a lot for our community – it’s nice for that someone is finally saying thank you. We will keep doing the work even if the reward isn’t there. We constantly help the community regardless of the reward.”

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Spotlight: EJ Slater

EJ was born and raised in Charlestown and is one of the founding members of the Charlestown Coalition’s Turn it Around (TIA) project, a youth social marketing campaign focused on prescription drug misuse. He was the first member of TIA to graduate from high school and receive a full scholarship to attend a four-year college. His leadership with TIA’s annual Drug Take Back Day, where residents return their unused prescription drugs, has significantly contributed to the increased number of scripts returned each year.

What connects you to Boston?

EJ: I’ve lived in Charlestown my whole life. I’m connected to it, I love it. The special thing is they have a lot of activities for kids. That’s the thing I love about Charlestown, they make sure the kids have something to do outside of school.

How did you get involved with community work?

EJ: The reason I got involved with Turn It Around was because at my playgrounds I would see needles and stuff and I was 7 years old. That is what brought me to know about drugs… and it actually kind of scared me. But now as I am giving back to the community, more people are aware of what prescription drugs do, and alcohol abuse, and how heroin/opioids can really affect your life, and that is what my group is really here to teach. We want to let you know what it can cause in your life; it can cause pain. TIA is a great organization that I love.

What inspires you?

EJ: My family, God, my friends and friends I made along the way inspire me because without them or this job I wouldn’t be where I am today. My friends impacted me a lot, because I wanted to give up so much in my life but they helped me strive to keep going and never give up. Receiving this award is awesome for me because it shows that hard work does pay off and to never give up, no matter how low your struggles may go in life.

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