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'Our Work Is Resistance'

Across barriers, she keeps a community healthy and whole

What do you do when your life’s work is threatened by President Trump’s America? For Alicia Wilson ’96, you do what you’ve done for 17 years: Keep the door open at a health center serving one of Washington, D.C.’s most vulnerable populations. 

Wilson is the executive director of La Clinica del Pueblo, a community--based nonprofit that provides primary and mental-health care, interpretation services, health education, and advocacy support to a largely Salvadoran population in the D.C. area.

The 35-year-old clinic annually serves roughly 4,000 clients who face considerable obstacles to health care access: 97 percent of its patients have a household income 200 percent below the federal poverty line. Many are uninsured immigrants whose journeys to the U.S. have been physically and mentally traumatizing and who face cultural, linguistic, professional, and even legal barriers once they’re here. All of these factors can contribute to a lack of quality, routine preventive health care—which is where La Clinica comes in. The institution abides by the philosophy that good health begins with the community at large—that treating the unique risk factors of an entire group will improve the health outcomes of the individuals.

Even so, Wilson is concerned that the election of Donald Trump, and the concomitant emboldening of conservative policymakers and the alt-right, threatens La Clinica’s clients. The potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act could eliminate funding that keeps the heat and lights on; Wilson also worries about patients becoming victims of hate crimes.

She draws strength from her clients, recounting the story of América Guardado, an undocumented immigrant who frequently arrived for her primary-care appointments covered in bruises. Her doctor persuaded her to accept La Clinica’s other services and connected her with their “swat team”—an intervention that included a peer-support group for domestic--violence survivors and immigration assistance. The team helped Guardado move into a shelter, get a work permit, and find English classes and coursework for a new career.

Guardado is now a certified nursing and medical assistant as well as a member of La Clinica’s board—and so one of Wilson’s bosses. 

“She works six-and-a-half days a week, but still takes Friday afternoons to support other domestic-violence survivors. La Clinica has a philosophy that ‘we’re all in this together,’ and she’s a great example of that,” Wilson says. “It’s incredibly affirming to work with and for folks like her. It gets me out of bed in the morning.”

Looking back, Wilson credits the College with sparking her curiosity—and humility.

“I think a lot of us arrived at Swarthmore as high achievers, and we were humbled very fast. Going through that process is an important part of growth,” she says. “I came from a white, Midwestern community and started in a job after college in which I was a minority. That was an opportunity to adopt that humility: I don’t know anything. Please teach me.”

Throughout her life and career, that mindset has served her well. 

“Swat taught me a lot about how to think about power and privilege and how societies are organized,” Wilson says. “It taught me to question my assumptions, to be open, and to push past my sense of my own capacity.”

Life’s demands keep testing that capacity, especially in today’s climate.

“I’m certainly not a poster child for work-life balance these days—I blame Trump,” laughs Wilson, who has two small children. “I’m sure my partner would agree, as she often takes up the slack in keeping us all clothed and fed.”

So how will she face this new era and its challenges? “Our work is resistance,” Wilson says. “That’s what we do—and will do—every day.”