By Elizabeth Millard, Photo by Sara Rubinstein
Receptionist Hasna Abdurahman, seated, and Sahra Noor greet a staff person at Teen Age Medical Services in Minneapolis
Former Humphrey Fellow Sahra Noor (M.S. ‘07) started growing the seeds of leadership as a teenager living in a Kenyan refugee camp. Volunteering at the camp’s hospital at her grandfather’s suggestion, she remembers standing by the bedsides of women who clenched her hand for support and comfort as they struggled to give birth in a place lacking in physicians, medicine, or emergency services. “The nurses and midwives in that camp were up against impossible odds,” she recalls. “They were in the middle of desperate, complex, and heartbreaking situations. But they remained composed and focused while everything around them was in chaos.”
The experience inspired Noor to pursue her own career in healthcare. And after coming to the United States at 18, she has spent more than two decades working hard to rise to a position that allows her to influence patient care. In 2014 she became CEO of People’s Center Health Services in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. But while the job may have come with a corner office, it was never Noor’s aim to land somewhere cushy where she wouldn’t interact with patients. Quite the opposite: Every day she makes it a point to walk around the center and talk with people waiting for care, just as she did in 1998 when she arrived there seeking help for her 2-year-old daughter who was suffering from an ear infection.
Noor, who is originally from Somalia, was a single mother and a freshman studying nursing at St. Catherine University at the time. After graduation she went to work as a nurse at Hennepin County Medical Center before moving on to other facilities to serve as a health educator and clinic administrator. With her sights sets on becoming more of a decision maker in areas of policy and prevention, Noor earned a master’s degree in nursing and health systems administration at the University in 2007 and took a supervisory position with United Health Group that allowed her to advocate for Medicaid patients. Additional upward moves followed, including her launch of the Health Commons in Cedar-Riverside, a drop-in center that offers free consultations with nurses and doctors, as well as wellness classes.
By the time she was named CEO of the People’s Center, Noor was widely regarded as a great choice because of her experience, longstanding commitment to patients, and trusted relationship with the Somali community (about 70 percent of the center’s patients are Somali). But in addition to all of those things, she credits the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs Policy Fellow program for helping to better prepare her for her leadership role. After devoting her career to working with underserved populations, Noor knew that many complicated factors contribute to poor health, particularly for immigrant populations struggling with language and cultural barriers, as well as misunderstandings about the way the American health care system works.
To be a voice for the underserved she knew she needed to hone her leadership skills and make more connections in public policy and community circles, so she applied to the Policy Fellows Program in 2010 for help. “Every single part of the program surprised me, and I found myself impressed and excited by all of it,” she recalls, explaining that she uses what she learned in the program every day.
Collaboration and change
Now in its 25th year, the Policy Fellows Program is one of the country’s most distinctive and respected leadership programs for emerging and mid-career professionals. Each session brings together 35 people from public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Director Larry Jacobs says the program was founded as a way to capture the unique civic culture in the state, and has continued evolving, especially in the past decade as communities change in Minnesota.
“I think of the program as a coral reef,” he says. “These are vibrant, living organisms, but they don’t grow on their own. Instead, they’re the result of many forces coming together.” Noor, he says, epitomizes the Fellows program, because she’s part of the state’s important immigrant community and is already an established leader in the health industry. “We need to be a state that welcomes people from around the world, and allows them to develop their talents. And we need to hear what they have to say.” He adds that the diversity of the Fellows is a formidable strength, encompassing not just cultural and ethnic diversity, but also a range of viewpoints when it comes to economics, policy changes, outreach efforts, corporate governance, and other vital issues . “There is an urgency for this kind of immersive education in policymaking,” adds Kate Cimino, program director for the Fellows program. “Confidence in government is at an all-time low, and so many people are pulling back into their siloes and throwing firebombs at each other. We need a way to move forward and find different solutions, and that involves offering people an opportunity to learn from one another.”
Fellows like Noor complete the program with a vastly expanded professional network across multiple sectors, as well as insights into leadership and policy that they may not have garnered otherwise. “What impressed me the most was the way the fellows were immersed with each other,” Noor recalls. “People came from government, academia, and the corporate sector, and everyone spoke freely about the challenges present in public policy. These are people with vital points of view, and I probably wouldn’t have met them if it hadn’t been for Humphrey.”
Cimino believes the Policy Fellows’ collaborative approach can have a ripple effect that goes far beyond each cohort. “We have seen phenomenal examples of how unlikely partnerships are formed, and compromise is held up as a virtue, not a loss,” she says. “In our world, we have policy problems that are getting more intractable. Having these well-educated advocates for change can have a major impact on the biggest issues of the day.”
Noor’s experience as a Policy Fellow continues to influence her daily. Since taking on her role at the People’s Center, she has been using the professional connections and insights she gained to grow the organization and expand its services. Drawing on her network of Fellows, she’s been able to connect with potential funders, understand complex policy issues, and get involved more deeply in public health issues. She also feels a renewed sense of confidence. “You get things done through the relationships you build,” she says. “Being a Fellow gave me a broader network, but it also gave me a wider perspective. I have the confidence to feel like my voice can be heard.”
She also feels that she can be a stronger leader, not just at the Center but also as cochair of Governor Mark Dayton’s Task Force on Health Care Financing, along with Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson. At 38, Noor is already known for her contributions to expanding health care access. She also understands firsthand how to help bridge the gap between the health care system and underserved communities, through creation of programs that center on translator accessibility, patient education, Medicaid and Medicare coordination, and extended-hours clinic appointments. Looking ahead, she has ambitious goals as well: expanding partnerships with nine community clinics, launching more services incorporating medical and dental care, and providing insight for potential legislative changes that will broaden access for underserved populations.
For Noor, it still all comes down to holding the hands—sometimes figuratively, often literally—of those in need. As she walks around the Center talking with patients, she remembers herself sitting there as an anxious young mother who had only been in the U.S. for two years and was worried about being understood in every way. “As a refugee, you feel marginalized—economically, culturally, spiritually, linguistically. I want to make sure that our patients know I represent them, I understand. I’m here to make a difference.”