By Guest Contributor Renee Mehaffey Harris
“The most difficult social problem in the matter of Negro health is the peculiar attitude of the nation toward the well-being of the race. There have . . . been few other cases in the history of civilized peoples where human suffering has been viewed with such peculiar indifference.”—W. E. B. Du Bois
The past few weeks have been a stark reminder as to why the Center for Closing Health Gap remains essential to Cincinnati. Committed to raising awareness about and eliminating racial and health disparities across Greater Cincinnati, the Health Gap works collaboratively with hospitals, government offices, associations and businesses. We educate, empower, and mobilize the community at every level. But, recent media reports have cast a shadow on our work.
Our focus on community health is broad and starts from the ground up. We define health as where you live, learn, work, and play in addition to your physical health. And we build from the bottom up, rather than the top down because the demand for healthier lives must come from and be led by those who are directly impacted. Recent political attacks on the Health Gap not only have revealed indifference to untenable racial and health disparities affecting the people we serve, but also promise to keep the most vulnerable in our city at the bottom.
I was joined by our board chair Mark Vander Laan in a meeting with reporters from both the Enquirer and WCPO to provide an overview of our initiatives. Instead of examining our many successful initiatives—our Do Right! Kids and Mount Auburn Do Right! campaigns, or our Community Engagement Academy –several news items have discredited our organization. In some regards, the attacks make sense: we are dedicated to empowering the community to challenge the status quo, which some may perceive as a threat.
One of our primary strategies is a grassroots mobilization method called Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR). According to the Kellogg Foundation CBPR is “a collaborative approach to research that equitably involves all partners in the research process and recognizes the unique strengths that each brings. CBPR begins with a research topic of importance to the community, has the aim of combining knowledge with action and achieving social change to improve health outcomes and eliminate health disparities.”
Through this unique method we educate, empower, and advocate to create a culture of health. In so doing, we have departed from traditional research and adopted a strategy driven by the very people impacted by health disparities. With our emphasis on the affected communities, we have increased awareness and knowledge in measurable ways, improving the quality and length of life for vulnerable populations in our city.
For example, consider our annual Health Expo, the largest health event in the Tri-State area to offer free health screenings and healthy lifestyle training for adults and children. Each year, every inch of Washington Park is dedicated to eating, moving, and living right. Since 2003, we have reached 87,000 residents and provided 30,000 free screenings for blood pressure, vision, cholesterol, dental, and much more.
Despite our best efforts, in this 14th year of the Expo, as statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate, significant health disparities persist among minority groups in Ohio, just as is true nationally. These discrepancies are rooted in the most complex factor in America: race.
The theme of the 2017 Health Expo is “Racism is deadly to your health.” Race impacts education, socio-economics status, and overall health. Among the barriers to healthy living are access to affordable transportation to medical clinics, lack of health insurance, unconscious biases by nurses and doctors, and limited access to early detection of diseases. The proof is in the data.
“Blacks are 50 percent more likely to be obese than whites. Blacks are also 50 percent more likely to have hypertension. Decades of research link race and income to health disparities. If you are poor or of color, you are more likely to have asthma or diabetes as a child. Then later in life, you are more likely to have a heart attack or die of cancer,” says Dwight Tillery, President, Founder, and CEO for the Center for Closing the Health Gap.
Studies continue to show that societal discrimination affects health outcomes. The Nation’s Zoe Carpenter recently discussed research showing the interconnection between institutional racism and poor health outcomes, specifically looking at infant mortality statistics. She noted that institutional racism explains why black mothers in the U.S. have this problem more than black women in peer countries:
“In none of America’s peer countries is racism so embedded—and that may explain why racial gaps in infant mortality and other health outcomes are worse here.”
Scientists have found that the chronic stressors resulting from living in the US as a black person can cause biological changes to the immune, vascular, metabolic and endocrine systems to cause cells to age more quickly. Researchers call this phenomenon the “allostatic load” or cumulative wear and tear on the body’s systems, which may explain why black Americans’ health deteriorates at a greater rate than other groups.
If racism is bad for your health, its effects are exacerbated by living in segregation and poverty. Residential conditions created by segregation make it difficult for residents to eat nutritiously, exercise regularly, and avoid advertising for tobacco and alcohol levels. Institutional neglect and disinvestment in poor, segregated communities contribute to increased exposure to environmental toxins, poor quality housing, and criminal victimization. People living in concentrated areas of poverty confront elevated levels of financial stress and hardship, as well as other chronic and acute stressors at the individual, household, and neighborhood levels. Segregation further limits access to quality elementary and high school education, preparation for higher education, and job opportunities.
These social conditions drive the health disparities we confront. It’s why black babies in Avondale die at three times the rate of white infants. It’s why the Health Gap is working directly with the communities living under these difficult circumstances to empower them to demand healthier living conditions. We not only are training people how to live healthier lives, we also are giving them tools to challenge government’s indifference to their living conditions, putting in their hands the necessary tools for change and for becoming leaders in their neighborhoods.
This work should need no explanation and merits no attack. We will continue with our mission, unbowed by the current political climate, taking our cues from the people we serve.
Renee Mahaffey Harris is the Chief Operating Officer of the Center for Closing the Health Gap. Harris has served in a variety of public service roles, including working with former Congressman Charlie Luken and Former Secretary of State Sherrod Brown. She also has served on numerous Boards including: YWCA, Boys and Girls Club, Cincinnati Park Foundation Board, Brownfield Port Authority, and the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati.