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Accompaniment One Foot at a Time

Written by Jeremy Myers

Over lunch one day, Katie Clark was describing the process of becoming a certified foot care specialist. It was quite the feat! I was curious why she put so much work into that certification. Her response was, “Because most people who come into our Health Commons are coming in for foot care. They’re on their feet all day every day and their feet are in bad shape.” This epitomizes the compassion and commitment of Katie for her work and the people she serves. Katie’s commitment to approaching health care through accompaniment shapes her work as an ever changing response to what the neighbors need.

Headshot of Katie ClarkDr. Katie Clark is a member of the nursing faculty and the Executive Director of Augsburg University’s Health Commons. The Health Commons are nursing-led drop-in centers that focus on radical hospitality and building trusting relationships with people in marginalized communities.  These Health Commons are located in downtown Minneapolis, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, and Rochester, MN. 

Dr. Clark had extensive experience doing medical missions work overseas in Peru, Haiti, and Namibia. But those experiences never sat well with her. She would return home feeling as though she hadn’t learned enough about the culture or the larger situation and context in these countries. She wondered if she and her companions were simply promoting a monoculture of healthcare and wellness rather than learning how wellness, health, illness, and care were understood in the context of these cultures. 

This uneasy feeling drew Katie to the study of transcultural nursing, the work of Dr. Paul Farmer, and the importance of social justice in the practice of nursing. You can’t just treat the symptoms of a problem; you must work to end the problem. You can just waltz into someone’s life with your solutions, you have to do the work of accompaniment in order to understand who they are, how they suffer, how they heal, and what they might need from you. Katie had found the way she wanted to do her work.

Under the leadership of Dr. Clark, the Augsburg Health Commons sites accompany those who are experiencing homelessness, are marginally housed, or are new immigrants who have fled wars. Their work with these neighbors is constantly evolving because the Health Commons are committed to this practice of accompaniment and mutuality, working diligently to fully humanize these neighbors while offering care. Students in Augsburg University’s nursing program gain firsthand experience providing care for people through more humanizing and relational practices than what most experience in our country’s healthcare system.

Katie describes the Health Commons connection to Augsburg’s mission and a sense of call to approach healthcare differently.

“The health commons work is an example of what mission-driven work can look like as we show up and work with our neighbors on issues that impact people in deep ways. We focus on developing relationships grounded in mutual benefit with those we care for. We want to really accompany people on their journey, with a path they choose, to truly walk alongside one another as equals.”


“For example, the first health commons at Central Lutheran Church came out of concern for what was happening when homelessness increased over thirty years ago and included so many people who struggled with a mental illness, or as we often call mental injuries. We asked the community members what they wanted when we started and provided help and care based on their expressed felt needs, which we continue to do today. We try to center the community’s voice in all that we do.”

Neighbors who visit the Health Commons can receive massages, exercise classes, clothing, cooking classes, parenting classes, swimming lessons, gardening, fresh produce, and yes – footcare.

The Health Commons has been around for 30 years and is central to Augsburg University’s mission as we continuously learn how to approach complex situations while ensuring our neighbors are not dehumanized. The Commons have become one way Augsburg is rooted in the various neighborhoods where it is located. Daily life at the Commons reminds us all to deemphasize our expertise in order to meet our neighbors where they are at. It is modeling a way to change the medical field as well as higher education. 

When asked what advice she would give to an individual or an organization looking to become more meaningfully engaged in the lives of their neighbors, Katie Clark offered these tips.

  1. Start by first just showing up and being part of what is happening. Get to know what is happening and be a familiar part of the community. If you are new to the community and you want to help out, write down what you think the issues or what problems certain neighborhoods face then throw that piece of paper away and forget about those ideas.
  2. But also, be aware of how you show up. Acknowledge your positionality and privileges every time you enter a space. It is important to do so for many reasons, but most of all, you don’t know how your presence can appear to someone else. You don’t need to be perfect – you just need to be present.
  3. No agendas — lean into learning from the community what is important to them, what they think needs to be done, and what role they think you could play in being involved. 
  4. Keep it ambiguous – I think people are often uncomfortable when our work or roles are undefined, but to truly walk alongside one another, the work needs to be co-created if we want to forge a path in the future of solidarity.
  5. Focus on the strengths of all those involved and all that has been accomplished. People are not told enough about their strengths and assets – this needs to be at the core of being involved – believing in one another and seeing everyone as having equal expertise.
  6. Be ready to learn new things about yourself and grow. As you develop new relationships and discover new ideas – journal, reflect, meditate, whatever you need to do to keep centered on why you became involved and what you wanted to do that was different. Take on new challenges, and remember to reflect on what you learned along the way.
  7. Use your power. When you learn about issues and are working with the community, you now have to think about the responsibilities that come with that. Advocate, organize, speak truth to power – whatever you need to do to take action when the time is right. 

As mentioned earlier, the work of Dr. Paul Farmer has impacted Katie’s approach. So it is fitting to end this story with one of Katie’s favorite quotes by Dr. Farmer. “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world” (From Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, by Tracy Kidder).