Minnesota Interfaith Group Works to Provide Access to Healthier Foods and Exercise

    • October 18, 2011

Diane Brennan, like many fellow members of Minnesota’s interfaith ISAIAH Coalition, regularly attends church on Sundays.

“Community organizing gives me an opportunity to express my faith the other six days of the week,” she says.

Through her parish, St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Brennan became active in the Coalition’s fight for public transportation improvements in and beyond the Hamline [pronounced HAM-lin] Midway neighborhood of St. Paul where she has lived since 1983 and operated a small business, a hair salon, since 2005.

“What hit home for me,” she says, “was my clients having problems getting here. Many live in a public housing high-rise designated for seniors, and suddenly the bus route changed, no longer stopping at their building. Walking even a few blocks to another stop was not an option for them.”

A comprehensive public transportation system is critical infrastructure for all residents to attend to daily needs related to family, work, education and recreation. For elderly and lower-income residents in particular, public transportation often provides the only access to resources lacking in their immediate neighborhoods, such as grocery stores that sell fresh produce and parks that offer safe space for physical activity.

According to Doran Schrantz, executive director of the ISAIAH coalition, nearly 80 percent of the state’s residents live in the “mega metropolitan region” that includes the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “And that population has gone from almost 100 percent White to now 14 percent people of color,” she says, “many of them recent immigrants such as Hmong, Somali, Latino and West African. Their health indicators are low not just compared to Whites in our state, but even compared to people of color in other states.”

Incorporated as an independent, ecumenical nonprofit organization in 2000, ISAIAH today includes nearly 100 member congregations across the religious spectrum, all concerned with meeting the growing health, education, housing and transportation needs of Minnesota’s increasingly diverse population. ISAIAH is supported by a Faith-based Advocacy: Galvanizing Communities to End Childhood Obesity grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The goal of the program is to mobilize faith-based coalitions to advocate for improved food, nutrition and environmental policies that can help halt childhood obesity.

“All of these issues are interrelated,” says Schrantz, noting that ISAIAH has been a frontline advocate for Transportation 2020, a bill successfully passed by the Minnesota state legislature in 2007. A huge victory for ISAIAH and its allies, the bill provides for the first time a dedicated stream of funding for regional public transportation in Minnesota.

A major reason ISAIAH supported the transportation bill was its transformative potential for public health.

“A billion dollars will be going into transportation along the Twin Cities’ Central Corridor,” says Schrantz. “It’s a generational public investment. Our goal has been to leverage that investment for community health.”

Although the bill passed, three stops along the new light rail line were eliminated a year later due to budget problems. “The three stops were in Frogtown and Rondo,” says Schrantz, “the very communities that depend most on public transit. They were the only stops being cut. It was a complete disconnect, technocrats making decisions on criteria other than what would be most healthy and equitable. We couldn’t let it happen.”

ISAIAH and its partners co-founded the “Stops for Us” coalition to fight for the missing stations, and worked with residents and community leaders of Frogtown and Rondo to organize discussion forums and do educational outreach.

“Building these relationships overcame decades of distrust between people of color and White people,” says Schrantz. “Together we organized meetings with the mayor of St. Paul, the county commissioners, state legislators and the affected district’s U.S. congressional representative. We brought community members together with public officials from all levels of government. We convened a public meeting with 3,500 people and came out with a set of criteria that said the Central Corridor will only be a success if it achieves these things—transit access, improved health indicators and access to jobs in the region.”

Brennan and her fellow parishioners were among dozens of residents who met with city, county and state representatives during the protracted struggle over the light rail line. This sustained process of community organizing and building relationships with policy-makers created both the political imperative and the practical opportunity for the deal that was ultimately struck between the City of St. Paul and the metropolitan council to reinstate the stops.

“When the community got involved, somehow they found the money,” says Schrantz, “and all three stops are now funded.”

Construction of the Central Corridor transit project began in fall 2010 and will continue over the next five years.

But the advocates’ work isn’t finished. Brennan will continue her efforts to ensure that the new light rail will connect to bus routes through densely populated neighborhoods like those where her clients live.

“We have to make it accessible to people who need it most,” she says.

If you would like to see a community recognized for its childhood obesity prevention work, please use our comments section to tell us a little about them and how we can get in touch for follow up.