My Journey as a Health Equity Advocate: Reframing the Question

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I grew up on the south side of Chicago in the 1960’s. While the south side of the city was not affluent, it was bustling with economic activity. We had parks to play in, structurally sound houses and schools,  grocery stores, clean streets, a range of retail activity, and lots of recreational facilities. There was a general sense of community well-being.

I left Chicago in the 1970s to attend college and begin my professional career, including live and work in Europe for more than a decade during my time away from the city. I returned to the States in the late 1990s, re-locating my family back to the Chicago area. My first encounter with Chicago of the 1990s was very positive – the lakefront and surrounding areas were stunning – new stores, restaurants, housing, amenities that attract tourists from all over the country and the world. Downtown was completely revitalized. Chicago is today a shining example of successful downtown revitalization.

One sunny summer morning, I thought I would drive through some south side communities I knew as a child to see how they had fared – fully expecting a similar resurgence – though not at the same magnitude. Instead, I found that the communities had deteriorated. The vitality I remembered was gone. Empty lots, boarded houses and other structures, too many liquor stores, and not enough food stores. Other retail establishments had bars on their windows, the streets were littered with trash, and the unemployed were hanging out on street corners. Children played on treeless, concrete “playgrounds.” 

While driving and contemplating this new reality, I noted something disturbing that would later define the trajectory of my career. I came to a stoplight. At that moment, I was distracted by movement that was visible on the periphery of my vision. I turned my head in time to watch a woman pull her pants down to her ankles, squat and urinate on the sidewalk – in broad daylight. My knee jerk response was, “What is wrong with her?”

A year or so later, I began reading about the social determinants of health, and realized that mental health could be determined by a wide range of social factors. I also began to realize that the question I had asked myself that sunny summer morning was not the right question. The right question was, “What social conditions has she been exposed to? What kinds of environments has she had to navigate that have put her mental health at such serious risk?” A host of other subsidiary questions should have come to mind on that day. For instance,  “Does she have a family, shelter, food, money or support of any kind?” “Has she been emotionally, sexually, or otherwise physically abused?” The evolution in my thinking about mental health would shape my work going forward.

I am trained as an urban and regional planner. My work involves examining, understanding, and addressing the often-hidden ways in which social, economic, and other systems interact with one another to shape the world we live in, our daily exposures, and our health and wellbeing.  In my career my work has focused on the fundamental causes of urban poverty, social exclusion, and a range of community development issues such as transportation, housing, education, public safety, and health.   

I am immensely fortunate in that I have had rich and rewarding educational and employment opportunities. However, as a woman of color, I have always identified with the underserved, the marginalized, the excluded; those with fewer resources, less opportunity, and no opened doors. It is in work that seeks to address where my heart lies.

My website captures some of the work I’ve done and the issues I care about:

The Social Determinants of Mental Health – As executive director of the Institute on Social Exclusion and Vice President for Social Justice at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, I led a team of professionals that developed the Mental Health Impact Assessment (MHIA) in which a proposed a proposed revision to guidance provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on the use of criminal records in employment decision making was evaluated for its likely impact on the mental health of the residents of Englewood – a low-income African American community in Chicago. The final report was selected by the Society of Practitioners of Health Impact Assessments as a Model Report. ]

Food Deserts and Community Violence: The Impact of Nutrition on Behavioral Health – Currently, I am working with a multidisciplinary team in Benton Harbor, Michigan, to determine if a diet free of preservatives and additives, and enriched with Omega-3 nutrients, can improve the behavior and performance of middle and high school students. The collaboration involves professionals in fields as diverse as urban planning; public health; nutrition; neuroscience; supply chain management; and food safety, prep and delivery.    

My website is a compilation of the work I’ve done in collaboration with others focusing on issues that matter to our nation’s most disadvantaged communities.

I am glad you are here.  Thank you for your interest in learning more.