Wisconsin’s status as a politically divided state often puts us in the national spotlight. One nonprofit organization working to bridge divides is the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS), which started in Wausau in 2007 at UW–Stevens Point with a mission to educate and engage residents of Wisconsin, develop future leaders, and help communities meet identified needs.
I had the opportunity to chat with two WIPPS team members—Francisco Guerrero, health coverage navigator and Hispanic services coordinator, and Nate Zurawski, project coordinator and research assistant—about the work the organization is doing to help advance Wisconsin’s communities.
Lizzie Condon: Rural communities in Marathon County have seen the closure of medical clinics and grocery stores in recent years, along with decreasing access to public transit. These issues exacerbate the impacts of climate change, especially on members of the Hispanic and Hmong communities. Francisco, could you describe the Hmong and Hispanic Communication Network project and its evolution?
Francisco Guerrero: The H2N project initially began as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It involved working with community health workers to address vaccination disparities in the Hmong and Hispanic communities. Over time, the project expanded beyond vaccinations to address broader social determinants of health, such as access to healthcare, interpretation services, and more.
LC: How is climate change impacting the communities you work with?
Nate Zurawski: Climate change is affecting agriculture in our region, particularly ginseng farms, which are integral to the local economy, especially for the local Hmong population. Changes in weather patterns and extreme conditions throughout the world are making it harder for farmers to maintain reliable crop production. This impacts Wisconsin as well. For example, this season has been very dry, which means farmers have to increase the levels of irrigation on their farms, essentially impacting their bottom line. Luckily, here in Wisconsin we have access to many freshwater resources, most importantly the Great Lakes. Agricultural hubs like California aren’t as fortunate, and this may create opportunities for Wisconsin’s farmers if they can meet the challenges ahead.
FG: Additionally, climate change can affect the quality of water, working conditions, and access to healthcare in rural communities. For example, extreme weather conditions can lead to heat-related illnesses among farmworkers, and limited access to healthcare and nutritious food can exacerbate health issues.
LC: Are rural communities and farmers actively engaged in climate change solutions?
NZ: We have seen some forward-thinking farmers who are adopting sustainable practices, such as diversifying crops, moving away from mono-culture farming, and using renewable energy sources like solar panels.
FG: It’s essential to provide information and programs that help farmers and rural communities understand and access climate change solutions. For instance, offering subsidies for solar panels to businesses to encourage sustainable practices is a good first step, but many farmers do not have the time to look into these programs and really understand their benefits. WIPPS has established two groups to help reach those communities: the Hmong and Hispanic Communication Network and the Rural Resiliency Network. Both do outreach to farmers and other people in rural communities to help them take advantage of programs and services that they might not have known were available.
LC: What are some other projects WIPPS is working on right now?
NZ: WIPPS’ mission is centered on community collaboration and service. Two bigger projects we’re currently focused on are Let’s Talk, Marathon County and Toward One Wisconsin. Let’s Talk, Marathon County aims to engage people from various backgrounds in constructive dialogues. The project will bring together around one hundred participants from diverse backgrounds in Marathon County to discuss community issues in a small, moderated group setting. The first issue we will be focusing on is youth mental health. T1W is a statewide conference that brings together leaders, professionals, and advocates to build and foster understanding around issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Last year we had over 120 presenters and more than 650 people attended the conference. The next conference will be held at the Pablo Center in Eau Claire, May 7 and 8, 2024.
Learn more about the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service by visiting WIPPS.org.