MN VOICES | Dr. Jose William Castellanos: Moving in many worlds

After fleeing the violence of the 1990s in his native Colombia, Jose William Castellanos now works with immigrant communities in the Twin Cities. “People with professional backgrounds usually leave this area, but I find that I’d prefer to give back,” he said, explaining his choice to continue working with the Latino immigrant community.

As the senior director of the community health worker services at CLUES, Castellanos moves between worlds: researcher at the University of Minnesota, medical doctor, community health educator, immigrant and parent.

In Colombia, Castellanos worked as a physician and was involved in several internationally supported public health programs. Like many other professionals, he sought to escape the danger and violence his country faced in the 90s. He said he had friends who were killed in the country's civil war, and that every family knew people who were impacted.

Among Dr. Castellanos's publications:

Tobacco use in Minnesota: Perspectives from Latino communities

Tobacco use in Minnesota: A quantitative survey of members of Minnesota's Latino community

Health disparities affecting Chicano/Latino communities in Minnesota

Castellanos has been dedicated to serving the Latino community since he moved to the United States from Colombia in 1999. When he immigrated to Minnesota, helping provide medicines to marginalized populations seemed like the perfect match for him.

Upon his arrival, Castellanos was accepted into the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy for graduate studies. An academic at heart, Castellanos said that receiving his PhD was one of the best experiences in his life.

In 2002, he became involved with CLUES. He was taking a Public Health class at the University of Minnesota when a colleague received a job offer from a professor. The colleague was from India but had a Spanish sounding name so the professor mistook him for a Latino. The colleague couldn’t speak Spanish but forwarded the email to Castellanos, who took the position at CLUES working on a project on medical research in Latino communities.

He became the Latino coordinator of the Diverse Racial Ethnic Groups and Nations (DREGAN) Project. The goal of the project was to reduce tobacco use in Minnesota’s minority communities by employing culturally competent and community sensitive research methods and action.

After seeing the results of his research, Castellanos realized he could design programs that would be effective in areas of second-hand smoke, smoking among Latino women in Minnesota, and teenagers, who were smoking more than the general population.

Since then, he has developed primary health care programs, programs to prevent the use of tobacco and other substances, and programs to improve prescription drug access for communities below the poverty level, native communities, and rural populations, and programs in reproductive health for young people.

In addition to research, Castellanos also works directly with the community. He does education outreach, such as teaching a women’s group about breast cancer resources.

One thing that Castellanos learned from this community work is that poverty is not just a statistic. He said that it is painful for him to see the contrast between one of the healthiest states in the country and the vulnerable populations he works with. He said that, because poverty is not in the “culture” of Minnesota, the public does not accept the reality of poverty. He believes that when society truly realizes that there is poverty, people will mobilize.

Castellanos believes that the work he does is important because there is a gap between the health status of the U.S. population and the health status of immigrants. He feels it is his job to address the disparities. The healthcare system, Castellanos said, is difficult enough for a normal person to navigate, and much more so for an immigrant.

Castellanos is currently participating in the Community Research Institute at the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the Center for Health Equity, and the Program in Health Disparities Research at the University of Minnesota.

In terms of the healthcare debates going on today, Castellanos feels that such debates are healthy ones, addressing issues of lack of access, high cost of prescription drugs and having emergency rooms as the only option for many people. He has personally seen people changing things at local, regional and national levels, and believes that conversations should engage people at each of these levels.

Castellanos said his parents taught him critical thinking at a young age and he noted several influential teachers, such as an elementary school math teacher who taught him the history of math and how it could be used in construction. He realized that formulas were taught to solve real-life problems. Another one of his professors memorized a musical symphony of numbers and played it on the piano.

Now, Castellanos enjoys spending time with his three sons. He goes fishing with his oldest son who is researching micro-organisms for his graduate degree. He said the son has a lot to teach his father on topics ranging from trout to global warming.

Going to restaurants with his middle son and camping with his youngest son are some of the greatest joys in his life. Castellanos is optimistic for them. They are here in the United States and the country is helping them achieve their greatest potential.