In Kansas City, Health Becomes the Driving Force
Donna Young’s mission on this day was a simple one: Make sure that 85-year-old Beatrice Lee had a place at the table. Young hopped into her car—a mobile office, with folders and papers scattered about—and headed across Kansas City to pick up Lee, the matriarch of the Douglass-Sumner neighborhood on the Kansas side of the state border. An important community meeting awaited, and Lee simply had to be there.
“There’s a collective depression in her community,” says Young, a community organizer for Communities Creating Opportunity (CCO), a non-profit that helps citizens seeking to improve their neighborhoods and lives. “They’ve been told for so long, through words and actions, that they don’t matter—and so they believe it.”
Lee was born in the neighborhood and never left. She watched her largely African-American community change from the vibrant, closely knit one that she knew in her youth to a depressed pocket plagued by crime and blight. Her tireless attempts to halt the decline had stalled. She needed help.
What Lee has been fighting to achieve much of her life—sometimes as a lonely if resilient voice—has become everyone’s fight, now a full-throated chorus of countless people across many sectors in this anchor of the American heartland. A metro area of a half a million people best known for the Chiefs, the Royals, legendary barbecue and stunning fountains is working diligently, yet aggressively, to give Kansas City something else to be proud of: health equity for all citizens and a culture shaped by healthy living.
The challenges here are not for the faint of heart, as segregation and discrimination of the past century created physical and cultural gaps between communities that still exist today. These inequities affect everything from access to healthy foods to education to income to safety and security. This, in a metropolitan area that spans two states, multiple counties and more than 300 square miles.
Yet Kansas City, undaunted, has forged ahead. Though no one suggests history can be changed, the partners here have laid out a blueprint for a very different future, one drawn with its citizens, born of collaboration, informed by data and ultimately centered around a holistic approach to health. This clear and deliberate vision is the reason Kansas City, Mo., was chosen as an RWJF Culture of Health Prize winner.
“Change in the form of community mobilization and policy development comes when the folks who are actually harmed by the issues are engaged and empowered to have a voice,” explains Rex Archer, director of the Kansas City Health Department for the past 17 years. “Community organizers help them get their voices heard.”