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Caring for Mental Health in Communities of Color During COVID-19

May 5, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

Lack of access to testing, fear of being profiled while wearing face masks, and other issues are increasing toxic stress and straining mental health in communities of color. Learn what one leader is doing about it.

Man with hand on forehead.

One of the most troubling aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is how it is exacerbating long-standing and deeply rooted inequities in communities of color. Health disparities stemming from structural racism have contributed to COVID-19’s devastating toll on blacks and Latinos in America. Often overlooked is how heightened stress from this heavy burden is impacting mental health.

Yolo Akili Robinson, a recipient of the RWJF Award for Health Equity, is swiftly responding to this new reality the pandemic has created. As the executive director and founder of Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), he leads his colleagues in training health care providers and community activists, as well as non-mental health professionals (family members, peers, etc.) to address mental health needs in communities of color. Robinson is witnessing firsthand how lack of access to testing and fear of profiling while wearing face masks, among other issues are increasing toxic stress and straining mental health.

In the following Q&A, Robinson shares insights about the impact and implications of COVID-19 on mental health within communities of color.

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Incarceration Rates: A Key Measure of Health in America

Apr 2, 2020, 1:00 PM, Posted by Carolyn Miller, Douglas Yeung

Mass incarceration is a pervasive problem that undermines health and health equity for individuals, families and communities. That’s why we have included it in the 35 measures RWJF is using to track progress toward becoming a country that values and promotes health everywhere, for everyone.

American flag behind barbed wire fence.

As coronavirus sweeps our nation it has brought deep-seated health inequities, including those linked to incarceration, to the forefront. Overcrowding and poor sanitation are putting prisoners at risk now more than ever. Persistent, widespread reports that guards and prisoners are testing positive for COVID-19 are especially alarming, and a sobering reminder that quarantines are nearly impossible among incarcerated populations. To address this, many jurisdictions are releasing select prisoners.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has long recognized how incarceration adversely affects health and health equity for prisoners as well as families and communities. With some 2.2 million adults and youth in juvenile detention facilities, prisons, and jails, the United States incarcerates many more people—and a higher percentage of our population—than any other nation in the world. There is widespread agreement that incarceration has adverse effects on health and health equity, not just for prisoners themselves but also for families and communities. That’s why, in 2018, RWJF included it among 35 illustrative measures we are using to track our progress toward building a Culture of Health in America—that is, becoming a country that values health everywhere, for everyone.

The measures linked to RWJF’s Action Framework are intended to be viewed together to identify priorities for investment and collaboration, and to understand progress being made toward realizing our vision. We are also considering the impact each individual measure has on efforts to build a Culture of Health. Because mass incarceration is a pervasive problem that undermines health and health equity, tracking it allows us to examine how it compounds the persistent challenges associated with achieving health equity nationwide and affects communities.

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New Narratives of Hope This Black History Month–And Beyond

Feb 5, 2020, 4:00 PM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

More than 50 years after the civil rights movement we still have a lot to do to reduce discrimination and increase health equity. Dwayne Proctor reflects on the role of stories in the search for solutions.

An older student plays around with a younger student in a school auditorium.

Note: This piece was originally published in February 2018.

One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories is watching from my bedroom window as my city burned in the riots that erupted after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination 50 years ago.  

The next afternoon, my mother brought me to the playground at my school in Southeast Washington, D.C., which somehow was untouched. As she pushed me in a swing, she asked if I understood what had happened the day before and who Dr. King was.

“Yes,” I said. “He was working to make things better for Negroes like you.”

My mother, whose skin is several tones darker than mine, stared at me in surprise. Somehow, even at 4 years old, I had learned to observe differences in complexion.

That is particularly interesting to me now, as I eventually came to believe that “race” is a social construct.

Of course racism and discrimination exist. They are deeply embedded in America’s history and culture—but so too is the struggle against them.

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Why Neighborhoods—and the Policies that Shape Them—Matter

Jan 23, 2020, 2:00 PM, Posted by Dolores Acevedo-Garcia

The Child Opportunity Index 2.0 uses contemporary data to measure and map inequities in all 72,000 neighborhoods in the United States. The tool helps researchers, city planners, community leaders and others identify and address inequities in their metros.  

Boys and girls run and play in the park. Image credit: iStock

The Tale of Two Boys Growing Up in Cleveland

Let’s ask two hypothetical 9-year-old boys a question: What is it like to grow up in Cleveland? 

Each boy attends school, and enjoys riding his bike and playing with Legos. Both live in Cleveland. Beyond these similarities, their life experiences are—and will continue to be—starkly different based on multiple, complex factors that lie within their neighborhoods.

Neighborhood A 

The boy living in Neighborhood A faces a host of obstacles to opportunity and well-being. 

Economic adversity is the norm. One in four families struggle with poverty, and nearly 83 percent of his peers in school need free or reduced-price lunch.

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How Bitter Melon Improved Housing in Providence, Rhode Island

Dec 9, 2019, 9:45 AM, Posted by Angela Bannerman Ankoma, Sharon Conard-Wells

Many housing projects focus exclusively on putting a roof over peoples’ heads. We sought a broader approach that integrates cultural values into kitchens, homes and neighborhoods.

Illustration of a neighborhood.

The literal translation of the word “sankofa,” from the Akan tribe in Ghana, means "go back and fetch it.” Figuratively, it captures an important belief in Akan culture: While the future brings new learning, knowledge from the past must not be forgotten.

This principle guided our efforts to transform 10 formerly blighted lots into a vibrant community of 50 modern “green” apartments in Providence, Rhode Island’s diverse West End community. The $13.5 million development is connected to 30,000 square feet of community garden space. Single fathers come with sons, pastors come with children and people sit under the garden’s pergola, which was built by local youth volunteers. It is, as one article put it, a “beehive of activity.”

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Disability Inclusion: Shedding Light on an Urgent Health Equity Issue

Dec 2, 2019, 11:00 AM, Posted by Richard Besser

We cannot achieve a Culture of Health until our nation is fully inclusive. Yet systemic factors prevent many people with disabilities from thriving.

Next year will mark 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became federal law—first of its kind legislation that outlawed discrimination against people living with physical or mental disabilities. It was a culmination of decades of challenging societal barriers that limited access and full participation of people with disabilities.

And yet in spite of the ADA’s passage, we still have a long way to go before society is fully inclusive of the 61 million people living in this country with some type of disability. Judy Heumann understands that while the ADA is important, in practice, “we’re not done yet." She is currently a leading advocate for disability inclusion and has been an advisor to institutions like the U.S. State Department, the World Bank, and the Ford Foundation. As a child, Judy was barred from going to school because she used a wheelchair. Years later, she was denied a teaching license for the same reason. These obstacles to education and employment are just two of many barriers that stand in the way of inclusion. Judy understood the need for strong advocacy in partnership with others experiencing continuous discrimination because of their disabilities. This discrimination is also often compounded by class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, or sexual orientation among other characteristics.

I had the chance to personally meet Judy at the first convening of the Presidents’ Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy this year. Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation and I are co-chairing this group of 13 other foundation executives to champion inclusion of people with disabilities in our own institutions and within philanthropy. We have a lot to learn from Judy and many others who have challenged systems and paved the way to making our nation more inclusive.

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How Can We Advance Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Policies and Laws?

Sep 3, 2019, 2:00 PM, Posted by Mona Shah

Post-doctoral researchers: We need your life experiences and academic background to inform inclusive and equitable policies. We’ll provide funding and support.

Law and policies should address, not compound, inequities. This is personal and something I carry with me.

I was 10 years old when a man in my northern New Jersey community was beaten to death outside a neighborhood cafe. Soon after, another community member was beaten and sustained brain damage. The number of victims—all of whom were of South Asian descent—grew over the years. The violence ranged from verbal abuse to brutal assaults and murder. It wasn’t uncommon for my home and other South Asian homes to be vandalized while having to hear racial slurs.

Officials denied that these attacks were hate crimes and ethnically motivated. Research and data on discrimination and hate crimes against South Asians simply did not exist, and there wasn’t much diversity among local officials. It was therefore difficult for community members to get the protection we needed. It wasn’t surprising that there were subsequent and repeated acquittals of people who perpetrated the violence. Even living in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, we didn’t feel a sense of freedom to live our healthiest lives because our laws didn’t do enough to stop racially motivated violence. It was years later when hate crime laws took effect.

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The Power of Local Data in Action

Aug 22, 2019, 12:00 PM, Posted by Marc N. Gourevitch

With the City Health Dashboard, communities across the United States are using data presented on a feature-rich website to create healthier and more equitable communities. Lessons learned will help more community leaders pinpoint local health challenges and close gaps in U.S. cities and neighborhoods.

A meeting facilitator refers to a bar chart.

If you knew children born and raised in one neighborhood of your city tend to live 10, 20 or even 30 years longer than those raised in another, what kinds of questions would you ask?

Local data on social, economic, and health factors can help city planners, policymakers, and community advocates illuminate approaches to such challenges and drive change.

We heard from city leaders that there was a lack of data at the city and neighborhood level clearly showing which factors have the greatest influence on their community’s health and well-being. So we got to work and created the City Health Dashboard. Launched in 2018, the Dashboard integrates city- and neighborhood-level data from multiple national sources, providing 37 measures that address health, such as obesity rates and life expectancy, and conditions that shape health, such as child poverty, unemployment, and residential segregation. The country’s 500 largest cities—those with populations of approximately 66,000 or more—are all represented in the Dashboard, which also includes a rich set of resources to help cities take action to improve health.

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To Improve Health Equity, Rural America Must Be Part of the Frame

May 2, 2019, 1:00 PM, Posted by Whitney Kimball Coe

What does it take to build fair opportunities for health in rural communities? A passionate advocate shares firsthand insights, as well as a new funding opportunity aimed to help build on existing lessons.

Fostering Health Equity in Rural Communities image.

My family lives in Athens, Tenn., population 13,000, and we are familiar with the truths of an economy that has changed. We shake our fists at spotty broadband and crumbling roads. And we know what it’s like to watch main street awnings turn yellow and old factory stacks rust and crack in the sun, to lose family farms to corporate agribusiness, and see health care specialists move to medical centers 70 miles up the road.

But these challenges obscure a much deeper truth about my hometown and other places in the countryside: we keep showing up in many ways and in many roles as public servants, entrepreneurs, social change agents, and keepers of community memory.

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New Data Provides a Deeper Understanding of Life Expectancy Gaps

Sep 10, 2018, 3:00 PM, Posted by Donald F. Schwarz

The more local the data, the more useful it is for pinpointing disparities and driving action. The first universal measure of health at a neighborhood level reveals gaps that may previously have gone unnoticed.

A father rides with his young daughter on a pink scooter.

When Dr. Rex Archer returned to his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, to lead its health department in 1998, he was shocked by the city’s inequities. Life expectancy for white residents was 6.5 years longer than that of black residents. Gathering more data, he estimated that about half of the city’s annual deaths could be attributed to conditions in neighborhoods like segregation, poverty, violence, and a lack of education.

I also confronted stark disparities by neighborhood in my years as Philadelphia’s health commissioner, as does most every health commissioner/director across the country. It is truly unsettling to see how small differences in geography yield vast differences in health and longevity. In some places, access to healthy food, stable jobs, housing that is safe and affordable, quality education, and smoke-free environments are plentiful. In others, they are severely limited. Data can help us better understand the health disparities across our communities and provide a clearer picture of the biggest health challenges and opportunities we experience.

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