Now Viewing: Health Disparities

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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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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Can We Create a Fair Shot at Health?

Apr 27, 2018, 10:00 AM, Posted by Sheri Johnson

No one in the United States should have less of a chance to be healthy because of their zip code, income or race. Accounting for historical trauma must be part of solutions toward addressing health disparities.

Police officer shakes hands with smiling citizens.

My sons are both in college, one at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and the other at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Raising African American boys into adulthood was often stressful. Despite the many advantages and supports we had as a family while they were growing up, I worried about their safety, whether their schools would see and nurture their greatness despite the color of their skin, and whether they would be able to live up to their potential.

As a public health practitioner, I’ve also had the opportunity to observe the amazing efforts of so many caregivers and families with limited resources who heroically “make a way out of no way.” I’ve seen what it takes, for example, for a mom to just get her children to a doctor’s appointment when they each go to a different school because the schools in their neighborhood are not the best she wants for them. I’ve seen the enormous emotional, physical, and mental energy families with fewer economic resources spend simply on surviving day to day—and I know that statistically, the burden of poverty falls particularly heavily on children of color.

I’m now director of University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute, which has for nearly a decade compiled the annual County Health Rankings. The rankings have helped communities across the nation see how where we live makes a difference in how well and how long we live. This year we’ve added a layer of analysis that hits home for me, highlighting the meaningful health gaps that persist by race.

We wanted to cover both place and race because county-level rankings can mask the deep divides we have in the health of different groups within communities. Even in counties with the best rankings—and the highest overall level of opportunity for good health—not everyone in every part of the county has access to opportunities for safe housing, adequate physical activity or a good education.

For me, knowing we still have gaps to fill is a call to action, especially as we mark National Minority Health Month. So how do we overturn the current reality and give everyone a fair shot?

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How Housing Impacts the Health of People Living With HIV/AIDS

Apr 12, 2018, 3:00 PM, Posted by Safiya George

Inadequate housing is a tremendous barrier to achieving good health—especially when dealing with a chronic illness. A team of researchers is examining largely rural counties in West Alabama to assess the impact of stable housing on the well-being of people living with HIV/AIDS.

A row of homes on a tree-lined street.

We know that where we live, work, learn, and play greatly impacts our health. Especially important among these, and too often overlooked, is the impact of where we live. Housing is tied to health in powerful and inextricable ways. Think about the steps you take each morning to care for yourself, or each evening when you go to sleep. What would happen if you didn’t know where you would sleep that night, or weren’t sure how long you had until you were forced to find new shelter? Would you still take the time to go through your routines, if there was nothing routine about them? Would you set up relationships with health providers if you might not live in the same community next month—or even next week?

I faced homelessness twice and they were the most stressful experiences in my life. Lack of access to stable housing can feel like an insurmountable barrier to achieving good health and well-being—even more so when one is dealing with a chronic illness or other health challenges.

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What’s the Connection Between Residential Segregation and Health?

Apr 3, 2018, 4:00 PM, Posted by Donald F. Schwarz

Residential segregation is a fundamental cause of health disparities. We need to take steps that will reduce health risks caused by segregation and lead to more equitable, healthier communities. 

Graphic illustration depicting residential segregation

For some, perhaps the mere mention of segregation suggests the past, a shameful historic moment we have moved beyond. But the truth is, residential segregation, especially the separation of whites and blacks or Hispanics in the same community, continues to have lasting implications for the well-being of people of color and the health of a community.

In many U.S. counties and cities, neighborhoods with little diversity are the daily reality. When neighborhoods are segregated, so too are schools, public services, jobs and other kinds of opportunities that affect health. We know that in communities where there are more opportunities for everyone, there is better health.

The 2016 County Health Rankings released today provide a chance for every community to take a hard look at whether everyone living there has opportunity for health and well-being. The Rankings look at many interconnected factors that influence community health including education, jobs, smoking, physical inactivity and access to health care. This year, we added a new measure on residential segregation to help communities see where disparities may cluster because some neighborhoods or areas have been cut off from opportunities and investments that fuel good health. 

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New Narratives of Hope This Black History Month–And Beyond

Feb 22, 2018, 1:00 PM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

More than 50 years after the civil rights movement, an RWJF-funded survey shows we still have a lot to do to reduce discrimination and increase health equity. Dwayne Proctor reflects on these findings and the role of stories in the search for solutions.

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

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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Putting the Needs of the Community Front and Center

Dec 11, 2017, 8:00 AM, Posted by Paul Lindberg

In the rural Columbia Gorge Region of Oregon and Washington, promoting better health for all means asking what community members need, listening to what they say, and including their ideas in programs and services.

Columbia River, town of Hood River.

The Columbia Gorge Region where I live is a vast rural area larger than Connecticut but with a population of only 75,000. While many people here are doing well, others live in poverty, or have to drive long distances to get to a doctor’s office. In this land of fruit orchards, one in five people regularly run out of food.

Mandi Rae Pope was once one of those people. A few years ago, during a difficult pregnancy at the end of her husband’s graduate studies, Pope says she was “counting pennies out of a Mason jar to pay for gas.” She struggled with migraines, and they were getting worse. In the midst of all that, our local Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program gave her a prescription for Veggie Rx, a program we started to provide free fresh fruits and vegetables to people struggling with food insecurity. This was a top concern that community members had identified. By using Veggie Rx, Mandi Rae was able to provide fruit to her toddler son, and the more nutritious diet also helped tame her migraines. Grateful for the help, she wanted to pay if forward and expressed an interest in promoting the program.

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In Rural America, Community-Driven Solutions Improve Health

Nov 15, 2017, 2:55 PM, Posted by Katrina Badger

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to improving health. A lot is being done across the country to make rural places healthier and thriving, with state and national policies enabling local innovation.

Dirt road cuts through agricultural fields.

I grew up in southwestern Ohio, surrounded by woods, corn and soybean fields down the road from a small town. Although my childhood home fits what some might see as a stereotypical description of small town America, I never thought of it that way. Now, as a program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) working to promote healthy, equitable communities, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a number of rural places and small town across the United States and see the vast diversity of these places and the people who live in them.

Encompassing about three quarters of our nation’s land and home to about 15 percent of the population, rural and small town America is not just one kind of place. It includes the Midwest like the area where I grew up, and nearby Appalachia. It’s also places like the Mississippi Delta and the “Black Belt” of fertile land in the South, unincorporated colonias and many places along the U.S.-Mexico border, remote and geographically isolated “frontier” areas across the West, and Native lands across the country.

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