Emerging Community Health Leader Tackles Health and Economic Problems in Alabama and Mid-South Region

    • November 3, 2010

Maria Claudia Norena, B.Soc.Sc., graduated from a leadership development program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) this summer and is already putting what she learned into action.

On August 20, the Minority Health & Health Disparities Research Center (MHRC) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham held a groundbreaking summit on the interplay between health and economic development. The goal of the one-day meeting—called the Health & Economic Development Summit 2010—was to better understand the effects of economic development on area residents’ health and the effects of health on residents’ economic security.

Norena manages the MHRC and leads the working group that conceived and planned the summit. The event brought together more than 100 experts from government, academia, the private and public sectors and the community to strategize about how to improve health and economic opportunity in the mid-South states.

Organizers, Norena said, “wanted an answer to the proverbial chicken-and-egg question about what comes first: Is economic growth a precondition for improvements in health or are improvements in health a precondition for economic growth?”

The summit opened with a documentary that captured input from residents of three rural and urban counties. It featured a panel of experts from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, Georgetown University, the International Economic Development Council, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and elsewhere.

Its goal was to start an interdisciplinary discussion about ways to boost health and the ailing economy in Alabama and other mid-South states, where there are high morbidity and mortality rates and wide disparities in health. These problems threaten to worsen in the current economic climate as unemployment rises and businesses shut down or relocate.

To improve conditions in the mid-South region, summit speakers recommended action in three primary areas: education, transportation and racial equity. Policy-makers should invest more money in developing a skilled workforce by funding quality education programs for students and, in some cases, their undereducated parents, speakers said. Lack of available and affordable public transportation is also a critical problem in the region because residents who lack access to transportation also lack access to health services, grocery stores and job opportunities. Community leaders should work to transcend racial, socioeconomic and geographic boundaries and work toward a common goal. That will generate the political capital to bring about change.

Speakers also encouraged communities to organize and partner with government and business leaders to improve health and the economy. Grassroots organizing sends a message to policy-makers that “our community is not for sale,” said Brian Smedley, Ph.D., vice president and director of the Health Policy Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C., who spoke at the event.

Norena Brings Ladder to Leadership’s Spirit of Collaboration to Alabama Summit

Norena came up with the idea for the summit while participating in Ladder to Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Community Health Leaders, a 16-month fellowship program that targets emerging leaders at health-related nonprofit organizations and local government agencies. A partnership between RWJF and the Center for Creative Leadership, the program provides leadership development training for emerging professionals in the nonprofit sector.

Under the program, mid-career nonprofit health and health care professionals learn how to maximize resources and collaborate with other community organizations. The goal is to prepare emerging leaders to move into positions of leadership in coming years as more senior leaders retire from the nonprofit sector. The program is taking place in a number of communities, including Birmingham, Ala., where Norena is based.

Norena called the model of collaboration she learned during the program “a revelation” and is already putting it to use. “As individuals, we have great ideas,” she said. “But only when we engage in true collaboration with individuals from different disciplines and backgrounds, and develop partnerships, do we arrive at the most innovative ideas and solutions. I saw this in the planning of the event and at the summit. We now need to apply this to the next phase as we collaborate with communities to design and implement solutions.”

Norena brought that spirit of collaboration to the summit when she brought together experts who had not previously worked together. “I have been in the field for 30 years and this is the first group tying economic development with health,” said Jeff Finkle, president and CEO of the International Economic Development Council in Washington, D.C.

In the fall of 2009, the Joint Center released a report that looked at the economic burden of health inequalities in the United States from 2003 to 2006. It estimated that eliminating health inequalities for African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans would have reduced direct medical care expenditures by $229.4 billion. In this same period the combined costs of health inequalities and premature death were $1.24 trillion.

“In the U.S., we tend to think about health as a product of individual behavior and health care,” Smedley said. “However, both are powerfully shaped by where you live. In fact, your zip code is more important than your genetic code in predicting your health and [the] behaviors that impact health.”

In the next six months, summit organizers will draft a community action plan that will be delivered to policy-makers and business leaders in the area. They also plan to publish articles about the summit in academic journals.

“This summit is not just one day but the beginning of what we hope will be a transformational process,” said Mona Fouad, M.D., M.P.H., director of the MHRC and the Division of Preventive Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which co-sponsored the event.

David Klock, Ph.D., dean of the School of Business at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, pledged to allocate pilot funding and involve faculty and students in action learning programs in Wilcox County. The students will assess existing resources and work with the community in helping transform what is one of the most economically challenged regions in the nation.

“This is the first step toward advancing economic development as a result of this summit,” Norena said.