Healthy Communities

Barbara Baquero is building connections to improve the health of rural communities, with a focus on Iowa’s growing Latino population.

Portrait of University of Iowa College of Public Health faculty member Barbara Baquero.

University of Iowa College of Public Health faculty member Barbara Baquero.

Although Barbara Baquero moved to Iowa just a few months ago, she’s quickly getting to know the state.

Baquero joined the CPH faculty in August 2012 as an assistant professor of community and behavioral health. Her research interests include community-based participatory health interventions, obesity and chronic disease prevention, Latino health, and health disparities.

Baquero is an investigator with the Prevention Research Center for Rural Health (PRC-RH), which collaborates with rural communities to improve health. The PRC-RH, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently formed a partnership with Ottumwa, a town of about 25,000 in southeast Iowa.

“We’re developing a community-wide survey looking at quality of life and health behaviors related to that,” Baquero says. The PRC-RH team will share the survey results with the community and collaborate on interventions to address health concerns.

Growing Diversity

About 11 percent of Ottumwa’s population is of Latino origin, and Baquero, who is originally from Venezuela, is specifically working to connect with Latino stakeholders in the area.

Iowa, like the nation, is growing more diverse. Between 2000 and 2011, the state’s Latino population increased more than 91 percent. Latinos currently constitute about 5 percent of Iowa’s total population, a figure projected to rise to nearly 13 percent by 2040.

Compared to the overall Iowa population, Latinos face higher rates of poverty, are more likely to be uninsured, and are less likely to have a high school education. Nationally, obesity and chronic disease, particularly diabetes, are major health issues facing Latino children and adults.

In her previous work at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and San Diego State University, Baquero collaborated with Latino groups on numerous community-based health projects.

“The lay health model is pretty well received by Latinos,” Baquero says, referring to a method where community members are trained to deliver health education messages. “There’s potential to create programs like that in Iowa.”

On a project in North Carolina, for example, soccer team captains were identified as lay health advisors. “Because of their role among their peers, they were trusted,” Baquero says. “Lay health advisors are natural leaders and organizers.

“And that’s the next step – after we connect with stakeholders, they can connect us to those informal leaders in the community, and that’s how we start the work.”

Making Connections

To build connections with Latino communities, Baquero has reached out to Latino stakeholders in Ottumwa and Iowa City. She’s learning more about Muscatine and has met with representatives from the obesity prevention task force in Washington, but her primary focus has been Ottumwa.

“I’ve been meeting with the school district, Iowa Workforce Development, the extension office, and the church to identify Latinos who have knowledge about the community and are also in positions to help create some potential programs for change within the community,” she says.

As projects evolve from the PRC-RH collaboration in Ottumwa, the goal is to engage residents in research and community change, says Baquero. “We can facilitate that process of building capacity.”

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