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Washtenaw United: Alfreda Rooks - UWSEM's Washtenaw County Woman of the Year for 2024

Alfreda Rooks, director of community engagement at Michigan Medicine.
Michigan Medicine
Alfreda Rooks, director of community engagement at Michigan Medicine.


Alfreda Rooks, MPA is the Director of Community Health Services (CHS) for UM Health – Michigan Medicine. She works to advance and identify creative solutions to address the health and social needs of the communities where Michigan Medicine’s patients reside. CHS programs are designed to improve health outcomes and equity of care that address the social determinants of health (SDOH).

Alfreda has expertise in program development, design, evaluation, and implementation, and a long history of deep-rooted community engagement. Her experience includes an extensive background in training, guiding and mentoring teams and building collaboration at all levels.

In addition, she is a trainer on topics, such as leadership development, change management, process improvement, culturally appropriate communication skills, the intersections between culture, health, and (SDOH), implicit bias, and entering and exiting community, and ageism.

She holds a master’s degree in public administration (Health Care Administration). She is on a mission to empower all people to be active participants in their health and well-being.


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David Fair: For as much progress has been made, more is needed. If you listen closely, you can still hear glass ceilings crack and shatter in all realms of American life. March is Women's History Month, and on 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United, we will continue to look at progress and achievement. I'm David Fair, and today, we're going to look at the world of public health. Alfreda Rooks is exceedingly accomplished. And her stated mission is to empower all people to be active participants in their health and well-being. Given the many barriers that often leave social determinants of health unaddressed or underaddressed, it's not an easy job. Alfreda is leading the mission from her position as director of community health services for Michigan Medicine. Additionally, her work is so well-respected that the United Way for Southeastern Michigan has named Alfreda its Washtenaw Woman of the Year for 2024. As such, she will be honored at the United Way's annual Power of the Purse event presented by the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation on March 20th. Alfreda, welcome and congratulations!

Alfreda Rooks: Thank you. Thank you for the welcome. And thank you for the kind words and congratulations. It has definitely been a wonderful and amazing experience as being told that I am the Washtenaw United Woman of the Year.

David Fair: Now, this recognition is not just about your 20-plus years in health care leadership. It is for the manner in which you go about your work. When did you know you wanted to work in the realm of community health?

Alfreda Rooks: So, I think I've always been in a position where I wanted to help. I mean, it started with my volunteering at SOS Community Services. Back in the 1990s, it was when I started, and I stayed there for almost ten years doing that work. But I think that it has just been something that has always been within me. I've always volunteered at church and other organizations. And so, I see the work that I do as a continuation of that commitment to be a supporter of people now.

David Fair: Having a desire to help and to become involved is one thing. But sometimes, you have to take it further. And you absolutely did. You earned a master's degree in public healthcare administration. I think people sometimes take for granted the extra hurdles and barriers that can be there for women, particularly women of color, in getting to where you are. Did you experience any of those challenges personally?

Alfreda Rooks: Well, I think, of course, as a woman of color in an organization will have some barriers. There will be some barriers. I did experience some as far as places that I wanted to work or jobs that I wanted that I was not being qualified for. But perseverance and resilience, staying to the course of my own personal mission and how I walk through the world, I tend to not see barriers as barriers. I see them as opportunities for change. And so, I have plenty of opportunities to change people's perception of me as a woman, as a Black woman, as a person, as well as the work that we do out of my department of community health services.

David Fair: Washtenaw United and our conversation with Alfreda Rooks continues on 89 one WEMU. Alfreda is director of community health services for Michigan Medicine. And, Alfreda, you just mentioned that many of the services you oversee and administer, those are the outward facing community embedded programs. So, what kind of difference does it make in outcomes when you can take services to meet the people where they are?

Alfreda Rooks: So, I think one of the best examples of that is with our Meals on Wheels program. We know that these are homebound older adults, and having access to nutritious food or being able to cook their own food is maybe something they're not able to do. And so, what we see is that by providing these nutritious meals, that there have been anecdotal responses from our clients that say, "I stopped taking my hypertension medication or I've lost weight. My doctor says I'm healthier now than I had been in some time." And so, those are the the actual pieces of it when you talk about Meals on Wheels. During the pandemic, it was really brought home to me how important it is to be in a space where people live and take services to them. With one of our first screenings that we did for the pandemic, doing COVID screening in community, there was a long line and I was going to tell folks, "You know, everything will be all right. We're running a little behind, but can I help you with anything?" And there was a woman who I came across who was very tearful, and I was like, "Ma'am, are you okay?" And her response to me was, "I am just so happy that this service was here in my neighborhood because I've been really afraid to go anywhere." And so, when you get that kind of response, for me, that's the energy that keep me moving forward, whenever I reach those opportunities for change, to still continue to advocate for or be innovative and creative in how we address the needs of the community.

David Fair: One of the things we did learn in the pandemic was that when you offer those services where people are, a lot of the fear and some of the mistrust goes away. But there remains, among some in the African-American community, a mistrust of the medical community. The same can be said for those in the LGBTQ-plus community. And it's fair to say that, through the generations, the medical community has kind of earned some of that mistrust. What have you found to be best practices in ensuring the medical community is treating people equitably and to build that trust for the future?

Alfreda Rooks: So, being African American myself, and understanding what some of the fears are as relates to previous research projects, where they think about Tuskegee 626, all those things, even in my generation, they feel kind of is the narrative. With the LGBTQ community, for more than 20 years, I ran the University of Michigan Hospital Comprehensive Gender Services program, working with the trans community and creating some of those opportunities for change. The most important thing is education and communication--education on both sides, so that we understand that when you come into contact with someone, there's an exchange of communication, and we all come to a conversation with our own experiences, our own filters, our own noise, that from our experiences and how we have been treated. And that's true in both communities. And so, that's why I say understanding communication and understanding the deep listening is very important. One of the tenets that I live by is that I speak first to understand than to be understood. And oftentimes, it's easier to listen to people and give them an opportunity to voice their concerns and what their fears are first. Then the conversation can really be about an exchange of really important information that may support their health, or it may support their well-being on that of some other family member.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU. And our Washtenaw United guest today is Alfreda Rooks. She is director of community health services for Michigan Medicine and has been named the United Way for Southeastern Michigan's Washtenaw Woman of the Year for 2024. Alfreda, as you look not only to the present but to the future, what do you see as the biggest remaining barriers to achieving true equity and equality in the realm of community health, both in access care and in the profession itself?

Alfreda Rooks: Well, the one thing I think that we need to do is that none of these issues or the social needs that our community faces can be handled or eliminated by just one group. It takes truly a village, and it takes a village of partnerships that go beyond health care. And so, we need to think about how we engage with businesses, how we engage with financial institutions, how we engage in education, how we engage with the communities themselves to be able to help us and partner with all of these organizations to be able to make the necessary changes that we're looking for. And I think that is something that we're beginning to see. Michigan Medicine is working on a project in Ypsilanti that includes, actually, the zip code 48197 and 48198, but it's also around our Ypsi health center and the additional services the community has told us they need to see in that space. And so, we are doing this with community, as well as with other partners to really talk about workforce development, local entrepreneurship or local purchasing and then also invest in all of these things as part of a mission to really improve community health in that community. Those were the two zip codes that were actually the hardest hit by COVID.

David Fair: You have said that you keep social and racial justice at the forefront of what you do by remembering your roots and who you are. How do you apply that on a daily basis to the work you're charged with carrying out?

Alfreda Rooks: Well, I think what happens is that because I always bring my authentic self to whatever conversation that I'm having that people see that I understand their experiences and maybe some of those experiences are something that I had or some other family member had, but it's very difficult for me to not walk in that space because it is how I was raised. It is going back to my roots. And when I think about my roots in Alabama--great grandfather, sharecropper, fourth-generation free slave, I am-and what it was that we were able to create. My folks lived through the Depression. They lived through Jim Crow. They lived through the Civil Rights Movement. I had a family member engaged in the Civil Rights Movement--doing the marches and everything. And so, I cannot not bring that awareness and those experiences into the conversation.

David Fair: Well, I'd like to thank you for the conversation today, Alfreda. I am most grateful, and I find you to be most inspiring!

Alfreda Rooks: Well, thank you so much! I appreciate having the opportunity to speak with you!

David Fair: That is Alfreda Rooks. She is director of community health services for Michigan Medicine, and our guest on a Women's History Month edition of Washtenaw United. She's also been named the United Way of Southeastern Michigan's 2024 Washtenaw Woman of the Year. She's going to be so honored at the United Way's annual Power of the Purse event, presented by the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation that will take place on Wednesday, March 20th, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Morris Lawrence Building on the Washtenaw Community College campus. For more information on that, take a look at our website at WEMU dot org, and we'll have all the information you want and need. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


March is Women's History Month, and United Way for Southeastern Michigan is thrilled to have conversations centering the accomplishments, identities, and adversities of women and girls everywhere.

To celebrate the support the financial stability of women, United Way for Southeastern Michigan is hosting its 16th annual Power of the Purse, presented by Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.

Power of the Purse features a lavish auction of donated handbags including local handmade, high-end purses, and everything in between for any look or occasion. Funds raised will be reinvested back into community organizations supporting financial stability for local women in need.

The event will also honor 2024 Washtenaw Woman of the Year, Alfreda Rooks! As the Michigan Medicine Director of Community Health Services, Alfreda has more than 20 years of experience in health care program leadership.

“I am honored to receive this recognition from United Way,” says Rooks. “I believe that because of what I have been given, it is expected that I will give back. That is what comes with the seat that I sit in, where I am at in the generations of the family. It’s not just about giving back to my family, but it is giving back to make whatever little corner of the world I have a little bit better.”

Power of the Purse will take place on Wednesday, March 20, from 5:30 - 7:30 p.m., at Washtenaw Community College’s Morris Lawrence Building. Tickets are now on sale for online purse bidding at: https://one.bidpal.net/powerofthepurse24

Help the Power of the Purse Committee reach their goal of a 100-purse auction and multiple raffle baskets, by donating at: https://unitedwaysem.org/power-of-the-purse-2024

Learn more about 2024 Power of the Purse Woman of the Year, Alfreda Rooks, at: https://unitedwaysem.org/blog/women-lighting-the-way-alfreda-rooks/

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support.  Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.

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Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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