Improving Public Health
MSW graduate Nadine Bridges focuses on positive youth development through public health
When she started a new role as community health division manager for Boulder County Public Health in early 2019, Nadine Bridges expected the position to be an extension of her past positive youth development work. But just a year into the job, the COVID-19 pandemic brought an entirely new set of challenges and responsibilities, including serving as the county’s coronavirus call center liaison officer.
“We put up a call center within 24 hours,” says Bridges, MSW ’10, who now is in charge of 30 call agents answering questions from residents and businesses about public health orders, symptoms, testing and more.
Her division’s policymaking work, coalition building and core programs remain a priority, too. Focused primarily on youth and young adults, programs include substance abuse and tobacco education and prevention, healthy parenting practices among teen parents, and a program aimed at increasing healthy behaviors and decreasing risky behaviors among LGBTIQ youth.
“The great thing about youth is that they can see and observe everything. That’s also the hardest thing about working with youth. There’s a level of authenticity and accountability with being a young person,” says Bridges, who previously worked as director of youth services at Rainbow Alley and developed youth programs as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua. “We can’t tokenize young people; we must really listen to them. For things to be successful and sustainable, you have to have youth voice at the table, along with decision making power — not just their voice.”
That can be particularly difficult in government, Bridges says, where political dynamics can make it hard to be heard. Inequities make youth participation even more challenging — particularly during a pandemic, when face-to-face contact is limited. For example, Bridges says, some youth don’t have strong enough Internet access to use connection tools like Zoom. At the same time, recent changes in regulations have allowed the team to use alternative tools such as Facebook and Instagram to communicate with young people.
Whether it’s disseminating emergency health information to the community or providing youth the support and skills they need to thrive, a focus on racial and health equity cuts across all of Bridges’ work. The Latinx community in Boulder County has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, Bridges notes, and young parenting teens have lost jobs as a result of the pandemic. In Boulder County, health equity is a strategic priority, and public health work extends to social determinants. “We’ve recognized race as a public health issue, and that has changed the conversation,” says Bridges, who also has a Certificate in Latinx Social Work from GSSW.
Bridges served as a field instructor and a GSSW adjunct instructor for several years, receiving the school’s Excellence in Teaching award in 2018. She also serves on numerous GSSW committees and panels, sharing her expertise to support student career development. As an instructor, Bridges advised students that big change doesn’t happen quickly. “It’s going to take time and patience. It’s a process, and the little steps matter,” says Bridges. “This is an opportunity for us to give space to these gaps in our communities that need to be changed. This is a time to change history. But it’s not going to be easy.”
“I love being a social worker — it’s about being loving and respecting the human condition,” Bridges adds. “When you see a young person who can’t look you in the eyes but by the end of the day they do, if you get people to see vulnerable communities differently, that’s what fills my cup.”