Fight for good oral health, equity rooted in family’s legacy

Arcora Senior Director of Community Partnerships Min Song (rear middle) with her parents and son at Hood Canal.

For Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month, an Arcora Foundation staff member reflects on how her parents influenced her work to address oral health disparities.

By Min Song, Arcora Senior Director of Community Partnerships

May is Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month. We celebrate the heritage and contributions of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islander people. Min Song, Arcora’s senior director of community partnerships, is working to make a difference through her work at the Foundation to further our mission. She shares why advancing good oral health and equity are important to her.

My parents immigrated to the U.S. as survivors of war after losing nearly everything. My dad’s house was bombed, and he was unconscious and temporarily disabled for days. Both lost their fathers during the Korean War, and both are the eldest of their families—which meant great responsibility to support family back in Korea. Yet, they never used hardship to describe their life. Instead, their message has always been to do your best, be proud of your heritage, give to others, support community, love all.

My parents symbolize yin and yang to me. My dad used to tell me about first coming to the U.S. and working two construction jobs to put himself through college. He described being the smallest in stature yet having to work the longest hours and having the physically hardest jobs. He never once uttered words of discrimination or racism, but even as a young child I felt in my heart something was amiss. He continued to rise to achieve what one could call educational success. My mom, the community organizer and humanitarian, whose picture is in the Wing Luke Museum for her political and community advocacy to advance our Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI)—especially our refugee and immigrant—communities to overcome the disproportionate inequities they face. I have countless memories of attending nonprofit fundraising events and AAPI candidate campaign fundraisers with my parents. At an early age, they instilled in me roots of community mobilizing. 

We, by no means, would have been considered economically wealthy growing up but my parents always instilled in me to share what we have with others. There are so many who don’t have the resources we have: access to food, water, safe and stable shelter, health care, education, economic prosperity, a support network. How will we use our privilege to uplift our community?

With gratitude for the foundation from my parents, my career journey has been rooted in leading programs for positive health and economic outcomes for our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)—especially our refugee and immigrant—communities. For much of my career before I joined Arcora, I oversaw workforce, education, and community services programs. I saw how the lack of access to oral health care for our BIPOC community members limited full participation in the workforce and educational pathways. For me, access to not just oral health care but culturally-appropriate care is a social justice and economic justice issue.

Over half of our Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander community members have had permanent teeth extracted, more than any other racial group. When my dad very unexpectedly passed away last fall, he had few of his permanent teeth left. As I looked through years of family pictures, I noticed he smiled less and less as the years progressed, or he just chose to not be in family pictures at all. I recalled the growing complications he had in coverage and accessing care for his complex oral health needs. I saw the toll on his mental health and joy in life, he had difficulty eating his favorite foods due to constant dental pain and started opting out of family outings which always included food. For both of my parents – their trajectory of lifelong oral health suffered from lack of access to and consistent care when they were young.

I was drawn to Arcora for our mission to bend the arc of oral health toward equity. We know that oral health is essential to overall health. I’ve seen that firsthand. Race and place should not dictate your access to care. I’m here to continue the legacy of my parents: everyone deserves a healthy smile, joy in life, positive health outcomes, and a path toward prosperity. I’m so humbled and privileged to be with the most amazing team to achieve this with community, in community, and for our community.

We can’t do this work without you. Advancing oral health requires public and private partnerships, policy advocacy, and funding. Join us in our mission to bend the arc of oral health toward equity. Learn more and contact us at info@arcorafoundation.org.

Celebrate water fluoridation as a public health achievement

Safer commutes to work or school. Freedom from worry about smallpox, one of the most devastating diseases ever. Community water fluoridation. Public health has made these and other harm reduction practices possible where we live, learn, work, play, and pray.

The first full week in April is National Public Health Week (NPHW). We celebrate the fundamental role public health has in our lives and the health of our communities.

During NPHW (April 1-7) we can reflect on the progress made through investments in public health and preventive health measures. At Arcora Foundation, community water fluoridation and its profound impact on improving oral–and overall–health is one of those measures. 

National Public Health Week is an annual recognition of the contributions of public health and highlight issues that are important to improving our nation’s health.

For nearly 80 years, a good balance of fluoride in public drinking water has improved oral health. Now roughly 73% of the U.S. population benefits from it. Community water fluoridation is one of the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century because it is a cost-effective, natural, and equitable way to prevent oral disease. Research shows that fluoridation has played an important role in the reduction of tooth decay in children—40%-70%—and of tooth loss in adults—40%-60%. Research estimates community water fluoridation saves billions of dollars nationwide in annual health care costs.

The benefits of a good fluoride balance in our tap water extend beyond cavity prevention. Poor oral health impacts overall health and has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, pregnancy complications, and other serious or life-threatening conditions.

NPHW should inspire us to support preventive health measures. The expansion of community water fluoridation so every Washington resident can benefit from it is a step in that direction. Currently, 56% of Washingtonians receive fluoridated water from their community water systems. No one should be denied access to this public health achievement based on who they are and where they live. When the benefits of water fluoridation reach more residents, it fosters a healthier, more equitable society for generations to come.

“I’ve practiced dentistry for 48 years in communities in many parts of the country: some fluoridated, some not. When I do a new patient exam, I can instantly tell whether an adult has grown up from an early age in a fluoridated community. Fluoridated water makes a difference and reaches all residents of a community on a public water system. It’s equitable, cost effective, and is the ideal public health measure, not requiring a change in behavior. Over my career, I’ve learned that one cannot have good health without good oral health.”

Kurt L. Ferré, DDS
American Fluoridation Society

NPHW is not just a period of reflection; it’s also a call to action. At the heart of NPHW’s week-long celebration is the hope that everyone will commit to protect and improve the health of our communities. Let’s work together to prevent diseases like oral disease—which is almost entirely preventable—and champion policies that advance oral health for all with no one left behind.

We can’t do this work without you. Advancing oral health requires public and private partnerships, policy advocacy, and funding. Join us in our mission to bend the arc of oral health toward equity. Learn more and contact us at info@arcorafoundation.org.

Seattle/King County Clinic meets immediate needs, but more work toward sustainable care needed

By Vanetta Abdellatif and Luzmila Freese

Every year, Seattle Center hosts a four-day, pop-up clinic that attracts thousands of people. Seattle/King County Clinic (SKCC) provides free, quality dental, vision, and medical services for people who face barriers to care.

SKCC (Feb. 15-18)—a collaborative effort between the Seattle Center Foundation and thousands of compassionate health care professionals, volunteers, and community and health organizations—offers first come-first served care to all regardless of insurance or residence status or ability to pay. People who seek care at the clinic could be our neighbors, family, friends, and community members we all encounter each day: lower-wage workers, older adults on fixed incomes, young people just starting out, people with disabilities, and uninsured or underinsured households.

Arcora Foundation is once again a proud SKCC sponsor. Arcora’s SmileMobile—a dental office on wheels that travels across the state—will provide dental services at the clinic. For ongoing care, patients will have access to DentistLink—a no-cost referral service for people with Apple Health (Medicaid) or no insurance fully funded by Arcora and the Washington State Health Care Authority. Dental care historically is the most requested service at the clinic.

At the heart of the SKCC effort is a commitment to break down barriers to access care and ensure everyone can enjoy the benefits of improved health. This is a deeply personal matter for us.

We know firsthand that access to timely oral health services from providers who understand and care about you can change your life:

  • Vanetta—My family experienced many periods without dental insurance here in the U.S., and we frequently had to forego preventive care and regular dental visits. Fortunately, I grew up in a city where the water was naturally fluoridated, so we benefited from the protective qualities of a good balance of fluoride in our tap water. Fluoridation is an effective and equitable way to prevent tooth decay for people of all backgrounds.
  • Luzmila—I grew up in a developing country where preventive dental care was not a common practice. Dental visits were often reserved for situations when pain became unbearable or for emergencies. We did have fluoridated water and a health care system that provided based on a person’s health needs and not on their ability to pay. Through my work here in Washington state, I have witnessed the impact a simple 60-minute regular check-up and cleaning session can have on a person’s quality of life and general wellbeing. This sharp contrast in accessibility to dental and health care is what has and continues to inspire me to do this work. 

SKCC serves primarily King County residents. It also attracts people from across the state because they can get free care for immediate and unmet needs. But only 3,000 or so people who often must arrive before sunrise, wait in line for hours, and are fortunate enough to get admissions tickets will receive care. While the annual clinic excels at offering compassionate and quality care, waiting an entire year to access critical services at a temporary clinic is not good health policy. We must commit to make sustainable, long-term care options available to everyone, so that one day the SKCC is no longer needed.

The state legislature has shown their commitment and leadership to oral and overall health. In the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers approved $500,000 over the 2023-2025 biennium to continue the public-private partnership so DentistLink can continue to connect more patients to care. In recent sessions lawmakers have significantly increased our state’s investment in both the pediatric and adult Apple Health (Medicaid) dental programs with the goal of increasing access to care. And we are excited about the Apple Health Expansion later this year, which will extend Medicaid-similar coverage, including dental, to  even more people who face challenges to access care.

These are important and exciting steps forward. We call on policy makers, providers, and patient advocates to continue to collaborate to make more sustainable investments in care. Supporting capital investments at local community health centers and the University of Washington’s Regional Initiatives in Dental Education (RIDE) program can expand access to communities facing the greatest dental care needs in rural, suburban, and urban communities.

As we celebrate the accomplishments of SKCC, it is imperative to also recognize the work we must do so that no one is left behind. We must be bold and dare to rethink the way we approach health care delivery, emphasizing the importance of policies and expanding access that furthers health equity.

Vanetta Abdellatif is president and CEO of Arcora Foundation—the state’s largest foundation dedicated to advance oral health—whose mission is to bend the arc of oral health toward equity.

Luzmila Freese is community programs director at Latino Community Fund, whose mission is to cultivate new leaders, support cultural and community based non-profit organizations, and improve the quality of life for all Washingtonians. 

We can’t do this work without you. Advancing oral health requires public and private partnerships, policy advocacy, and funding. Join us in our mission to bend the arc of oral health toward equity. Learn more and contact us at info@arcorafoundation.org.

Celebrate Black history, recognize the importance of kid’s oral health in February

February is a time for double celebration!

Black History Month honors Black people’s contributions to and place in American history. National Children’s Dental Health Month spotlights the importance of good oral health for the youngest members of our communities.

Through our equity-led initiatives and programs, Arcora Foundation is committed to improve the oral and overall health of Black people and children. We partner with policy makers, state agencies, and community-based organizations to eliminate disparities and develop sustainable solutions so everyone in Washington state can reach their full health potential with no one left behind.

Access to Baby and Child Dentistry (ABCD), community water fluoridation, DentistLink, and MouthMatters is just some of our work that addresses disparities. Learn more about our programs and initiatives.

For Black History Month and National Children’s Dental Health Month, we’re pleased to celebrate the work of our partners at Children’s Alliance—a statewide child advocacy organization. Executive Director Dr. Stephan Blanford explains what he does, why he does it, and how Arcora helps make it possible.

“I’ve been a child advocate for nearly 25 years now. Before this role I was an education researcher, an elected school board director and a direct service provider. Though it may sound cliché, I do this work to pay back all those who have invested in me and my family. And to help create Rev. [Dr. Martin Luther] King [Jr.]’s ‘beloved community.’

“Like a point guard in basketball, I coordinate the passion, energy and talents of our staff, board, partners and 7,000 members across the state to achieve wins in the state legislature. These wins come in the form of policies that improve conditions for the state’s 1.7 million children, with a specific focus on those children and their families furthest away from their vast potential.

“[Arcora] Foundation’s support allows Children’s Alliance to engage and mobilize those communities, amplifying our influence with legislators.”

Dr. Stephan Blanford, Executive Director, Children’s Alliance

“Too many Black people live at the intersection of poor oral health and other societal mistreatments—among them, poverty, residential segregation, and poorly funded schools. And all of us face the insidious impacts of individual and institutional racism. Therefore, it is so, so important that we work relentlessly to recognize and eliminate these barriers. And that we, individually and collectively, hold our leaders accountable to take action on our behalf.

“As someone who has suffered when I didn’t have dental insurance or money to pay for a dentist visit, I know personally (and painfully) what lack of access means. And as an education researcher, I know that poor oral health access can lead to a lifetime of negative consequences for students and adults, impacting every aspect of their lives. 

“Arcora Foundation recognizes how critical oral health is in the overall health of children, their families and communities. Like Children’s Alliance, they focus their efforts on communities where access to critical services is limited to ensure that all residents of those communities can access good oral care. The Foundation’s support allows Children’s Alliance to engage and mobilize those communities, amplifying our influence with legislators.”

Dr. Stephan Blanford is executive director of Children’s Alliance. The organization helps people tap into their personal political power so they can advocate for change in their communities.

We can’t do this work without you. Advancing oral health requires public and private partnerships, policy advocacy, and funding. Join us in our mission to bend the arc of oral health toward equity. Learn more and contact us at info@arcorafoundation.org.

For one Native dental provider, her work is a family affair

Celebrate National Native American Heritage Month.

Arcora Foundation is proud to honor Indigenous people across the region and their enduring legacy. As we continue to celebrate National Native American Heritage Month, we uplift the voices of our Native partners who strive to improve oral and overall health in their communities.

By Angela Johnson

My name is Angela Johnson, my ancestral name is Tat-Sem-Maat. On my dad’s side of the family, I am Lummi and Quinault from my grandfather and Tsawwassen First Nations from my grandmother. My mom is non-native.

I am a dental therapist for my tribe—Lummi Nation—here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. A dental therapist is a mid-level dental provider—like a physician’s assistant in medicine. I provide preventive and routine dental care—such as completing sealants and restorations. I can perform simple extractions—under the supervision of a dentist or when agreed between the supervising dentist and dental therapist— under indirect supervision. I also attend our tribal school and complete procedures there. My profession helps expand access to care to people and areas in need.

Angela at work in her dental clinic.

I love working in my community because I get to see a lot of my family—nieces, nephews, aunties, uncles, and too many cousins to count. We are a small population—Lummi Nation itself serves about 6,000 people—but that makes us a big family. My relationships with my patients are unique in that way. Everyone knows everyone.

When family members come for a dental visit and know they are seeing me, they are happy they can be with someone they know who truly cares about their oral health and is passionate about improving their quality of life. A nephew of mine came in for a filling with our pediatric specialist. He had a tough time cooperating. When I asked if he wanted to do his entire appointment with me, he nodded yes. When he came back for his next visit, we were able to numb him, remove caries—tooth decay—and do a filling. When things like this happen, it makes my job worthwhile. I have done a few more fillings with him, and his approach to the appointments has been much better.

Angela treats a patient.

A lot of my adult family members refused to come back to Lummi Dental due to past trauma from a dentist who had a bad reputation throughout the tribe. Unfortunately, this is common for tribal clinics in the U.S. Our reservations are underserved and usually rural. Some do not even have running water. When providers are hired to work for our tribes, they are not used to this type of situation and population. We have a higher turnover rate as a result.

When asked, “What do you do?” Simply put, I say I do my best. This work to provide my tribal community—people with the same background and from the same conditions as mine—with quality dental care means so much to me. One single visit can be so impactful, positively or negatively, and determine whether a patient comes back to my office or a dental office in general. Oral health affects self-esteem and overall health. Improving my community’s—my family’s—oral health definitely drives me to do my best and continue to deliver excellent care and education.

Angela helps a younger patient with proper brushing technique.

Organizations like Arcora Foundation play such an important and meaningful role for me and my position. Arcora advocates for better oral health for communities with disparities. They have supported us with funding for minimally invasive dentistry. This innovative approach to care tries to preserve the tooth and remove as little tooth structure as possible. They have helped with funding to travel for professional development opportunities and for prizes and supplies—oral hygiene kits, dry mouth supplies, sugar free options—for events. Arcora is a one-of-a-kind organization that makes a huge difference in oral health care. They truly understand and agree dental therapists are the innovative change needed in dentistry.

Angela Johnson is a dental therapist at Lummi Nation.

We can’t do this work without you. Advancing oral health requires public and private partnerships, policy advocacy, and funding. Join us in our mission to bend the arc of oral health toward equity. Learn more and contact us at info@arcorafoundation.org.