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Duluth-based project taps the power of black women

Glenn E. Simmons Jr. knows firsthand the power of the woman in African American culture.

"It was my mother who was adamant about certain things going a certain way," he said.

Glenn E. Simmons Jr.It's often true that women are the leaders in black families, Simmons said, which is why he was on board with a colleague's effort to help women encourage men to take control of their own health.

Simmons, an assistant professor in biomedical sciences on the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota Medical School, joined Olihe Okoro in an ongoing community project with a long name: "Leveraging the family influence of women in a community-based health education intervention to promote prostate health and general well-being among African American men."

Okoro, an assistant professor in the U of M's College of Pharmacy, Duluth campus, was inspired to begin the project because of the same observation about women of African descent.

"They're the people who are caregivers; they are the ones who are the historians in the families," she said. "At times you have an aunt who has a lot of influence, or a mom, whoever. But women do have influence in that family structure."

Olihe OkoroProstate cancer is the poster disease for their concern about the general well-being of black men in the Duluth area. Outside of skin cancers, it's the most common cancer diagnosed in American men, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it doesn't treat all ethnic groups the same. Although the rate of prostate cancer is declining across the board, African Americans remain by far the group that's most often diagnosed with it, according to CDC data.

There's a one in six chance of someday being diagnosed with prostate cancer if you're in the general population, Simmons said. For those of African ancestry, it's a one in five chance.

Some of that is predestined by genetics — from 5 to 10 percent, according to studies, he said. The community education project focuses on factors that people can control.

"We know that the influence of diet and exercise is tremendous in terms of the rates in which people are diagnosed with prostate cancer as well as other cancers," Simmons said.

To help African Americans understand such factors, Okoro and Simmons assembled a group of men for eight sessions on the causes of prostate cancer and other health challenges and to offer ways to improve their odds. More recently, they've put together a group of women for similar classes — women of any ethnic or cultural background as long as they have a relationship of some sort with black men in the Twin Ports.

"The women were much easier to get on board," Okoro said. "They are definitely more engaged."

Along with talking about lifestyle issues, Okoro and Simmons talk about the importance of establishing a relationship with a health provider, and not being afraid to ask questions.

"We keep telling them providers are not magicians," Okoro said. "They're not mind readers. They only go by what you tell them."

Again, Simmons said, black women can be effective at insisting the men in their lives see a health provider.

"That's why having the women involved, having the aunts, the nieces, the daughters, the wives, the girlfriends involved — now the men can't get away from that information very easily," he said. "We're hoping that that will start to catalyze a shift in the culture."

Simmons has experienced that for himself. Although his family's recent roots are in the Chicago area, he was mostly raised in Florida by a mother who joined the military. Like most of his friends, he grew up in a single-parent household, and his mother made sure he received the health care he needed.

"I had a mom that made it work, because she was forceful in that way," Simmons said.

Both Simmons and Okoro are relative newcomers to the Duluth area. The former joined the medical school after postdoctoral fellowships in Texas and Louisiana. Okoro earned her academic degrees at the University of Nigeria and the University of Florida.

An advantage of working with groups from the community is helping long-established residents advocate for their interests, both said.

"I'm here, I'm a part of this community, but I'm a little on the fringe," Simmons said. "So no matter how much I do, it's not going to have the same level of impact as people who are from here, born here, raised here coming together and saying these are the things that we need because we've seen these things happen for too many generations.

"I think what we're doing, especially with the men, is we'll create that body of essentially savvy consumers."

Health fair focuses on family leadership

Glenn E. Simmons Jr. is involved in putting together an upcoming health fair that will include the impact of fetal alcohol syndrome on black and Native American families.

The Family Leadership Health Fair will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 9 at the Washington Center, 310 N. First Ave. W.

"This is completely new," said Simmons, who is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School's Duluth campus. "We have an idea of what we want to accomplish, but we don't know what's going to actually happen. Which is always exciting."

The event is sponsored by Fathers Rise Together, a nonprofit organization that seeks to help men who were formerly incarcerated become reacclimated to their families, Simmons said. The health fair is receiving financial support from the Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

The fair will give families an opportunity to engage with healthcare providers, Simmons said. It will include discussion on fetal alcohol syndrome, which occurs when a mother drinks during pregnancy.

More information is available by calling (218) 461-1722.