Now Viewing: Public and Community Health

Three Lessons on How Communities Can Support the Struggle for Water Justice

Sep 29, 2022, 10:00 AM, Posted by Brenda Santoyo, Jeremiah Muhammad

Access to clean, safe water is a basic human right—a right we strive to protect in our Chicago neighborhood. These important lessons we've learned along the way may help other communities facing similar challenges.

Water Pipe and Scales

The Flint water crisis prompted anxious school districts nationwide, including ours in Chicago, to test water in our public schools. The results were alarming: Thirty-seven percent of schools had levels of lead in the water fountains that were far above the federal limit.

This was the beginning of our journey toward water justice in Little Village.

Little Village is a small, culturally and economically vibrant Chicago neighborhood that is home to many Latine families and children. But industrialization and climate change have posed stark threats to our well-being. To build a healthier community, through the years we have worked alongside courageous local leaders to wage tireless grassroots campaigns. For example, one community-led effort transformed contaminated land into open green space—the first public park to be built in Little Village in 75 years. Another effort succeeded in shutting down a coal plant that was polluting our air with toxic fumes.

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Help Us Learn How to Close the Racial Wealth Gap

Jul 28, 2022, 11:00 AM, Posted by Alexandra Zisser, Mona Shah

It’s past time to close the racial wealth gap, which undermines health in families and communities affected by structural racism.

Illustration of Wealth Gap

Editor’s note: This funding opportunity is now closed.

Can your family withstand a difficult diagnosis, a missed paycheck, or a significant rent increase? For many families and communities, those financial shocks are impossible to weather and gravely impact health and wellbeing. A survey conducted this year found that two-third of Americans have put off care they or a family member need because of cost.

This is the result of the racial wealth gap, which refers to how hundreds of years of structural racism have deprived Black and Indigenous families and other communities of color of assets and resources that accumulate and transfer from one generation to the next. Today, the racial wealth gap is a chasm; previous research shows that, for each dollar of wealth held by White families, Indigenous families have about 8 cents, Black families have about 13 cents, and Latino families about 19 cents.

Our nation’s policies have limited wealth and opportunity, especially for Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. From the appropriation of millions of acres of Native American land, to the Emancipation Proclamation which freed slaves but did not establish a federal policy that Black people could own land, to the internment camps that cost Japanese Americans their homes and businesses, home and land ownership have been afforded only to some. Housing discrimination in many forms, including redlining and predatory lending, continues today.

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Three Local Policy Solutions That Can Advance Park Equity

Jul 27, 2022, 1:00 PM, Posted by Pamela Russo

Urban parks are a smart investment for health, but not everyone has a park nearby. These local policy solutions can help bring parks to every neighborhood.

Park Equity Graphic

When I want to get some fresh air, exercise outdoors, or connect with the healing power of nature, I go to one of the many green spaces close to my home. These local parks contribute to my mental and physical health, and improve my quality of life considerably.

We all need parks, but not everyone has one nearby. Black, Latino, and other communities of color have fewer parks than white, wealthier neighborhoods. And the parks they do have are half the size and five times more crowded. It’s time to fix this inequity and create parks and green spaces that will serve generations to come.

The Power of Parks

The pandemic underscored just how important parks are to creating strong, healthy communities. Parks protect health and promote mental wellbeing by providing people of all ages and abilities opportunities for physical activity, time in nature, social connection, and respite. Research shows that time in parks can decrease levels of stress and anxiety by 50 percent.

Parks and green spaces also have environmental benefits that can help guard against the health harms of climate change: they cool temperatures, cleanse air, filter stormwater, and replenish groundwater. Research reveals that neighborhoods within half a mile of a large park are six degrees cooler than neighborhoods without nearby parks.

Simply put, urban parks are a smart investment for health and essential community infrastructure that should serve every neighborhood.

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Better Tobacco Control Policy Starts Locally

Jul 14, 2022, 1:45 PM, Posted by Cynthia Hallett, Delmonte Jefferson

To advance health equity, we must fight preemption and restore local control over tobacco regulation.

Tobacco and Housing Illustration.

This post is the third in a blog series (the first on preemption as a policy tool and the second on strengthening public health authority) that explores how preemption has served as a double-edged sword in either supporting or undermining efforts to advance health equity. We explore how some states have limited tobacco control at the local level and why local policies are critical to advancing health equity and protecting communities from commercial tobacco.

“By introducing pre-emptive statewide legislation we can shift the battle away from the community level back to the state legislatures where we are on stronger ground.” —Tina Walls, Philip Morris, July 8, 1994

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is poised to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars later this year. In 2019, the federal legal age to purchase tobacco products increased from 18 to 21.

These are significant public health victories that will save lives. The use of commercial tobacco products undermines health and continues to be a leading cause of preventable death in our nation. Decades of predatory marketing has targeted Black communities with menthol advertising, driving health disparities.

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Strengthening Public Health Authority is Critical to a Healthy, Equitable Future

Jun 3, 2022, 1:45 PM, Posted by Monica Hobbs Vinluan, Sarah de Guia

What happens when elected officials use preemption to usurp public health authority, and what can be done about it?

Strengthening Public Health illustration.

This post is the second in a blog series that explores how preemption has served as a double-edged sword in either supporting or undermining efforts to advance health equity. We explore how some states have limited public health authority and what must be done to rebuild a public health infrastructure that centers equity.

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A Community Vision of Mental Health

May 19, 2022, 12:00 AM

Centering the community in making its own decisions, confronting a long legacy of trauma and violence, and honoring genuine emotion are among the pathways to mental health that many residents of Palm Beach County are embracing.

In Palm Beach County, Florida residents are tackling neighborhood challenges together. Teamwork and a commitment to inclusiveness and civic participation helped the county earn an RWJF Culture of Health prize.

Six communities that comprise the Healthier Together place-based initiative are asking local people what they care most about. Their questions sometimes surface surprising answers. Many residents say they want to focus on mental health and that “feeling whole in mind, body, and spirit” is what really matters to them. But the way they think about mental health often differs from the way a clinical provider considers it. “It’s not a traditional definition, it’s their definition,” said Jeanette Gordon, whose Healthier Neighbors Project in Riviera Beach and northern West Palm Beach is all about fostering engagement, empowerment, and balance.

Organizing a multi-generational street cleanup may not at first blush seem deeply connected to mental health, but the Healthier Lake Worth Beach community saw it as a natural fit. “They wanted to create the conditions where their kids could thrive,” explained Pat McNamara, CEO of Palm Health Foundation, which funds Healthier Together. And what could be better for emotional wellbeing than that? Under the umbrella of mental health, Palm Beach County communities are activating other priorities as well, each one identified by those who live there—including gaining access to healthy foods, confronting the root causes of trauma and violence, and creating opportunities for youth.

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Good Things Happen When Nurses Lead

May 2, 2022, 11:00 AM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

A retired nurse CEO says we need nurses in government, on the boards of for-profits, and mentoring the next generation given their powerful role in influencing people, policies, and systems.

Mentor the Next Generation of Nursing illustration.

Maria Gomez has had her finger on the pulse of our healthcare system and the people it serves throughout her storied, 30+ year career running a community health center that serves a low-income, immigrant community in greater Washington, D.C. Maria entered the United States at age 13, started Mary’s Center after becoming a nurse, and helped grow it into a powerhouse serving 60,000 people each year. Mary’s Center helped pioneer an integrated model of healthcare, education and social services to put people on a path to good health, stability and economic independence. In 2012, President Obama presented Maria with the Presidential Citizens Medal. She retired in late 2021. Here, in the second part of a two-part interview, she reflects on the challenges facing our healthcare system, how nurses can continue leading efforts to meet them, and what we can learn from the pandemic.

What are the greatest challenges facing our healthcare system?

Today, it’s all about the numbers—the number of patients you see and the number of minutes it takes. Because that’s how you get paid. To transform lives, we need to change how we address patient needs. Providers can’t do it all in 15 minutes. Some are so overwhelmed by the numerous demands on them that they’ve grown numb to what their patients are feeling. Too many smart, incredibly passionate people who devote themselves to healthcare have become disheartened, burned out, and are even leaving the workforce. This is the most discouraged I’ve seen providers in my career.

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How Can We Use Local Data to Address the Impacts of Structural Racism on Community Health?

Apr 4, 2022, 10:45 AM, Posted by George Hobor, Oktawia Wojcik

Thirty-five local non-profits will be awarded up to $40K to work with local data to dismantle structural racism via a new funding opportunity.

Editor's note: This funding opportunity is now closed. 

Columbus, Ohio redlining map. A redlining map from 1936. In communities throughout the nation, there is strong correlation between redlined places and worse health outcomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced how place matters for health. Some communities have the conditions needed to help their residents thrive—like safe streets and parks, safe and affordable housing, and access to healthy foods. But too many communities—particularly places where people of color and those with low incomes live—have lacked these resources. This lack of resources is a result of the legacies of structural racism, such as redlining that shaped the socio-economic trajectories of communities, and modern-day racist practices, like systemic disinvestment from communities of color.

To inform efforts to improve community conditions shaped by structural racism, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has released a call for proposals (CFP). In order to best represent the voices of those most impacted by societal injustices, we aim to meaningfully engage community organizations. Up to 35 local non-profit organizations will be awarded up to $40,000 over nine months.

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How Can We Prioritize Equity in Public Health?

Mar 10, 2022, 12:01 AM, Posted by Maisha Simmons, Sallie George

RWJF leads the design and development of an independent public health institute in New Jersey.

Young woman takes blood pressure of a woman at a table.

Editor's Note: Acenda awarded grant to launch the New Jersey Public Health Institute.

We are proud to live in one of the most racially and ethnically diverse states in the nation. Our home state of New Jersey is also a national leader in areas such as expanding health care coverage, enacting paid family leave, and maintaining low smoking rates.                                                       

Unfortunately, however, these bright spots are offset by glaring disparities with roots in our nation's long history of racism that persists to this day. For example, a Black woman in New Jersey is seven times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than a White woman and Black babies are more than three times more likely than White babies to die before their first birthday.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and worsened these inequities, especially along racial/ethnic lines.  

In addition to the role played by social determinants of health, a major contributor to these disparities is a state public health system strained for decades by lack of funding and insufficient coordination across health and related sectors. Experts agree the system lacks the capacity to simultaneously achieve its core missions while equitably responding to and managing public health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Transforming Rural Health Through Economic Development

Nov 17, 2021, 11:00 AM, Posted by Maryam Khojasteh

The challenges and opportunities for rural America are complex. While rural economic development has come a long way in the last 40 years, we still have a lot to learn. 

Aerial image of a rural town.

RWJF’s Maryam Khojasteh sat down with Janet Topolsky, who served as the executive director of the Community Strategies Group at the Aspen Institute, to discuss rural economic development, the challenges and opportunities facing rural America, and what the future holds for improving rural economies. Topolsky, who stepped down after a 40-year career working on developing opportunities and capacity in rural America, oversaw the development of the Thrive Rural framework, an effort begun by the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group (Aspen CSG) in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Thrive Rural framework aims to organize learning, strengthen understanding, and catalyze and align action around what it will take for communities and Native nations across the rural United States to be healthy places where everyone belongs, lives with dignity, and thrives.

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