December 3, 2018


Stewart Hotel, 371 7th Ave, New York, NY 10001

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Building Healthy Communities: One Funder’s Place-Based Approach to Help Neighborhoods Transform Themselves

On December 3, 2018, NYHealth hosted its inaugural Building Healthy Communities conference, “Supporting Community-Led Change for Health.” Speakers from local government, community-based organizations, and health systems discussed what communities are doing to be healthy.

“Community health is not just good food and exercise, it is also education, economic security, and safety,” said keynote speaker Angela Glover Blackwell, Founder in Residence, PolicyLink. Under Ms. Blackwell’s leadership, PolicyLink gained national prominence in the movement to use public policy to improve access and opportunity for all low-income people and communities of color, particularly in the areas of health, housing, transportation, and infrastructure.

Ms. Blackwell spoke about Lifting Up What Works®, PolicyLink’s strategy to prioritize equity at the center of health, economic growth, and community development by focusing on what people need to participate and reach their full potential. Equity is not just a catchphrase, she said—it is an economic driver. She shared that as a country, we need to flip the notion that the trickle-down model works. Instead, solving problems for the most vulnerable in society could solve those problems for everyone. Ms. Blackwell highlighted several examples, citing the “curb-cut effect”: sloping sidewalk corners were created in the 1970s so that people using wheelchairs would have easier and safer mobility. The end result was that curb-cuts benefitted much more of society than originally intended—for example, parents pushing strollers, food workers pushing carts, and travelers pulling luggage. Applying the curb-cut effect to economic development, Ms. Blackwell called for more investment in creating economic engines to fuel communities that have suffered from disinvestment. Cautioning against initiatives that displace people, she emphasized the importance of creating opportunities that ensure success and secure affordability for all, especially for the current residents of a community.

Following the keynote, NYHealth’s Vice President for Programs, Sharrie McIntosh, facilitated a Q&A with Ms. Blackwell. In this discussion, Ms. Blackwell urged the audience to think more creatively about reducing violence and remarked that society relies too much on the police rather than investing in community institutions. She stated that if we had addressed the crack epidemic of the 1980s in a way that focused on communities, we may not be dealing with the opioid epidemic the country is seeing now.

NYHealth Program Officer Bronwyn Starr moderated the first panel, “Food and Health,” featuring two women working at the forefront of the movement to use food as a means to keep both individuals and communities healthy. Panelists were:

  • Linda Goode Bryant, MBA, Founder and President, Project EATS
  • Theresa Brereton, MS, RDN, CDN, CDE, Nutrition Supervisor, East New York and Cumberland Gotham Health Centers

The discussion began with a description of an unlikely partnership between Project EATS, which runs a network of urban farms throughout New York City, and the East New York Gotham Health Center, which is part of the largest public health system in the country. The two organizations have joined forces to start a Farmacy program at the health center. A garden was built and now fresh produce is prescribed to patients at the point of care when they receive nutrition counseling.

Ms. Bryant talked about her idea to create a network of urban farms in New York City, where real estate is prohibitively expensive. She found that vacant land, however, is not—and there is a lot of vacant land in neighborhoods like Brownsville. Ms. Bryant’s work is fueled by her philosophy, “use what you have to create what you need.” Mr. Brereton spoke about how well received the Farmacy program has been by her patients, and how food can spur new relationships, build trust, and nourish physical and mental wellbeing.

The panelists also discussed how, in addition to lack of investment, language can be harmful to community growth. Referring to Brownsville as a “food desert” or “food swamp” undermines what residents are doing to build it back up. These phrases reinforce the blight. Rather, it is important to use language that highlights what a community has, not what it is lacking. As a more productive alternative, Brownsville should be referred to as a “food hub” instead.

The panelists agreed that it is important for residents to see tangible change. Project EATS and the East New York Gotham Health Center have done just that by transforming vacant land and unused space into valuable community assets.

NYHealth Program Officer Nupur Chaudhury moderated the second panel, “Improving the Built Environment, Block by Block,” which featured a discussion on efforts to integrate residents across New York State in initiatives that improve spaces and places in neighborhoods. Panelists were:

  • Erin Barnes, MEM, Co-Founder and CEO, ioby
  • James Brodick, Director, Community Justice Centers, Center for Court Innovation
  • Tara Singh, MPH, Director of Programs, Building Healthy Communities and Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice

Panelists discussed seizing the opportunity to rethink how spaces and places can and should be improved. They noted that this work cannot be successful or sustainable without authentic community engagement; in order for communities to be full partners, communities need investments. Panelists discussed a current example of leveraging investments from New York City agencies to improve criminal justice system reform. They emphasized that we need to be solving community problems by investing in community institutions and faith institutions. Mr. Brodick made the point that improving the built environment should be about building communities up, rather than building jails.

Ms. Barnes emphasized that at the heart of community investments should be the residents. After all, movements are not started in 501(c)(3)s, she said. This notion was echoed by all of the panelists, who shared their focus on expanding the agency of the people who are most important to this work—residents.

Ms. Singh, representing the government’s role in improving community health, shared that the most creative, engaging ideas have happened when people stop operating in silos that funders and program implementers create (e.g., healthy eating vs. physical activity, food vs. built environment).

Read biographies of the conference speakers.

Watch a video to learn more about NYHealth’s efforts to improve access to healthy eating in Brownsville:

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