Farhiya Farah has spent several summer afternoons in her new office at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, where she will teach her first course, Applied Public Health Experience Capstone.
She’s been writing syllabi, meeting colleagues, rereading books.
With her Ph.D. in Environmental Health Sciences — a public health degree that emphasizes environmental effects on human health — Farhiya has undoubtedly earned the educational qualifications.
But in this office, with its large window letting in the late-afternoon sunlight, there’s a different type of preparation taking place too.
What Farhiya has realized recently, she explains, is that “my public health life and my spiritual life are not mutually exclusive. They’re actually one.”
“And what ties it together,” she smiles as golden rays grace her shoulders, “is my intention.”
When Farhiya emigrated from Somalia to the United States nearly three decades ago, she had just finished high school. Upon arriving she enrolled in community college, and after completing a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) course, she began work in a nursing home.
Degree in hand, Farhiya felt ready to establish her network and enrich the well-being of her community. That’s why she applied for a job as a health inspector with the City of Minneapolis. “I was like, this would introduce me to people from all walks of life,” she explains.
As an inspector, Farhiya played a key role in the City’s efforts to preserve a safe environment for its citizens and prevent risks to their health. She inspected food facilities, working with restaurant owners and operators to reach compliance with the City’s health code.
It wasn’t long, though, before Farhiya felt the appeal of education again. She discovered that many of her colleagues had received their Masters in Public Health (MPH), an interdisciplinary degree that centers on preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health.
There was just one challenge — Farhiya had a preschooler, a toddler, and an infant.
“I remember my boss’s reaction when I told her that I wanted to go back to school. She just said, ‘Now?’” Farhiya laughs. “I was probably the only student who had baby food in all her textbooks.”
Despite the amusement with which she recalls it now, Farhiya’s decision to pursue higher education wasn’t an easy one. One day her mischievous toddler crawled under her computer and pulled the wire out of the wall. “Windows didn’t have autosave at that time,” remembers Farhiya. “Those are the pains. But if you don’t go through pains, you don’t get to the next stage.”
And her MPH certainly enabled Farhiya to reach new professional milestones. She landed a job as a research assistant with the National Food Safety and Defense Fund, a post-9/11 initiative funded by Homeland Security. From there she moved to the Global Initiative for Food Systems Leadership in a position that took her traveling throughout four continents.
But as Farhiya advanced from working at the local level to achieving on a global scale, she found herself yearning to return home. The constant travel was tiring, and by that time her children had reached middle school.
After all, she says, “I do public health work every day, but public health starts at home.”
This time, instead of finding a new job, Farhiya fashioned one from the ground up. For some time she had been doing projects on the side to supplement her income, but now she chose to take this small consulting business and turn it into her full-time job. “It was a huge risk,” says Farhiya, “but it paid heavily. It really did.”
Farhiya called her new firm GlobeGlow. As principal consultant, she found herself with ample opportunities that allowed her to pursue her passion — health equity.
One of Farhiya’s major accomplishments is the work that she did with restaurant owners and operators whose proficiency in English is limited. The City of Minneapolis, where she had launched her public health career as an inspector, had noticed a pattern of food code violations at restaurants where staff predominantly spoke a language other than English.
In order to address this language barrier and prevent further violations, Farhiya and other consultants taught food safety classes in Somali and Spanish. Farhiya took the lead in creating an accompanying app called Safe2Eat, which has English, Spanish, and Somali translations. With these resources available in their native languages for the first time, restaurant owners and operators can now learn the food code and avoid inadvertently getting their customers sick.
Farhiya’s work on this project was recognized with a Healthy10 Award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, honoring business-led initiatives that improve health outcomes and community wellness, as well as the 2016 Public Health Hero Award from the Minneapolis Health Department. She won the 2018 Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner’s Circle of Excellence Award for another equity-based project.
What Farhiya is proudest of, though, are her children: “My biggest accomplishment is building a successful foundation for them.”
She’ll never forget the moment when she knew that she had succeeded in becoming a role model for her children. Her son came home from school one day with a letter for her. She assumed it was just an assignment, but she opened it and read the first line: “You are such an inspiration.”
Farhiya begins to tear up as she remembers. “And the thing that inspired him is watching me work for almost a week, sitting at the computer from early morning to night, writing a federal grant.”
The letter said: “I watched you — I would wake up and you’re still working, I would go to bed and you’re still working. Eventually you receive a rejection. I’ve never been more inspired than the way that you handled that rejection considering how much effort you put into it.”
Some of the possibilities that Farhiya has pursued arose suddenly and sometimes tragically.
In 2010, her father was in a car accident that left him paraplegic. With his recovery regimen, Farhiya and her sisters searched for adult care that would also meet culturally-specific needs. Although they found no such service, they learned that Hennepin County had released a solicitation of interest (SOI) requesting consulting support to establish a care center for Somali elders.
“We put in a proposal, the proposal was accepted, and we created it to solve this problem,” says Farhiya. The care center, called All Welcoming Adult Care (AWAC) also provided an opportunity for Farhiya to partner with the Minnesota Department of Human Services in developing a statewide cultural consulting model.
“It’s something that is near and dear to me — this work and the aging community,” she says.
Through her work in the community and throughout her consulting career, Farhiya has been exposed to cultural, educational, and other barriers to health equity. With wide socioeconomic disparities, many populations in the United States do not live in healthy environmental conditions — and therefore lack equal opportunity to achieve healthy lives.
“I’ve worked in the real world and seen where the gaps are,” says Farhiya. “We haven’t developed the threshold of competence in public health to do this emerging equity work, so workforce development has been the idea to me for a long time.”
The opportunity to contribute to workforce development in the field of public health is what drew Farhiya to St. Mary’s. “It’s a school oriented around social justice,” she explains. “The health equity piece, I think, is such a great match.”
As Public Health Programs Director and Assistant Professor, Farhiya will be able to leverage her experience and her network to educate the next generation of public health practitioners. “It’s exciting for me,” she says. “I get to look at my world, the public health world, and direct students so that they can get where they envision.”
For Farhiya, this next stage of her career isn’t about prestige or profit. “What is the true motivator?” she asks herself. “The true motivator should be bringing the best possible services to everyone.”
Success in Farhiya’s book is not achieving a certain salary. And although she has innumerable awards and accomplishments, that’s not what success is either. “It truly is your relationship with God and living a life of excellence in whatever capacity,” Farhiya believes. “If you can demonstrate that, then in my world, you’re extremely successful.”
Farhiya has a rich religious practice that includes Quran classes with her children and semi-monthly meetings with her “soul sisters,” a dozen or so women at various ages and stages of life who build their spiritual muscles together. But her spirituality doesn’t stop at the steps of the mosque.
In fact, Farhiya’s faith extends to her office at St. Mary’s, where she’s been busily preparing and thoughtfully intention-setting. “If I do my work to please Allah, if I do it for the greater good, then it’s an act of worship,” she explains.
Farhiya goes on: “If that’s the model you take, then you bring piety into your work, you bring patience, you bring heavenness — which are attributes of a great teacher.”
Pious teacher and determined scholar, dedicated mother and patient mentor — Farhiya is our Shero.