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Plans Aim to Make Neighborhoods Healthy

Health disparities between low-income communities of color and more affluent neighborhoods are an established fact. And it’s clear that one big reason for that gap is the social determinants of health, defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2020 program as economic stability, education, social and community context, health and health care, and neighborhood and built environment.

So once you acknowledge these realities, the question becomes, how can communities improve these factors to improve their health? 

South Chicago is one of three LISC NCP neighborhoods engaged in health planning. Here, residents and community organizers identify health problems, and potential solutions, in their neighborhood.

Photos by Gordon Walek

To help answer this question, LISC identified three New Communities Network neighborhoods to join a community health planning initiative that brought together community-based organizations, health providers, neighborhood residents and other stakeholders to think through how a stronger civic infrastructure can help the community become a better, healthier place to live. 

Recently, the community plans for those three neighborhoods – Chicago Lawn, Little Village and South Chicago – were released, along with a cross-community summary report that outlined their common ideas and approaches, including options to provide culturally relevant health information in the community, help for residents to navigate the health care system, and advocacy at the local, state and federal level to improve the systems that provide health care. 

“The meetings in all three communities to draft their plans brought together a consistent set of diverse, interested people and groups,” said LISC Program Officer Dominique Williams. “I think that level of interest – and the thoughtful plans with local strategies that came from it – show there is an opportunity to support effective local programs that can improve health outcomes in Chicago’s communities.”

Three communities, three answers

Community health is woven into the LISC model of comprehensive community development. Each neighborhood in LISC’s New Communities Network determines the right local mix of priorities and issues, and many of the strategies address the social determinants of health, from education to economic stability to the built environment.

For several years, LISC has initiated programs that more explicitly target public health, including Elev8 school-based health centers in five Chicago Public Schools and the Hoops in the Hood summer youth basketball program. Most recently, LISC has supported grassroots campaigns to connect residents to health insurance from the Affordable Care Act and the Illinois All Kids program. 

“The health planning process is another step to think about what role our community development partners can have to improve the health of their residents,” Williams said. “How community-based organizations can be a convener in the neighborhood around existing resources and institutions working to improve neighborhood health.”

Claretian Associates' Jackie Samuel, left, discusses health planning with representatives of community organizations and medical providers in South Chicago.

When the leadership at Enlace Chicago heard about the opportunity to apply for the program, it was an easy decision. The group had recently finished a new edition of Little Village’s quality-of-life plan, including a section dedicated to community health. “That plan is meant to be a launching pad. When there’s an opportunity to take a big-picture plan and add more detail, that’s really valuable,” said Simone Alexander, Enlace’s community development director. 

In Chicago Lawn, work around community health by the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) has included organizing to save one of its member institutions, Holy Cross Hospital, from closing and helping the large number of residents in the community who are undocumented find affordable health insurance. In South Chicago, Claretian Associates has less experience working directly with the health care system but, to Senior Program Director Jackie Samuel, the community health planning project connected to their efforts to promote exercise and nutrition and to prevent violence. 

“Violence itself is a health concern, of course,” she said. “But it’s also that even though we have beautiful beaches and parks in this community, people are afraid to really exercise or live a healthier lifestyle because of the violence. And when you look at job creation—a shooting is going to scare people off who might invest in this neighborhood. Health is just connected to other domains in almost unexpected ways.” 

To create the plan, the lead agency in each community held a series of meetings that brought together more than 80 participants across the three neighborhoods: residents and representatives of community-based organizations, elected officials, schools, social service agencies, the police department, and local health care providers such as hospitals, federally qualified health centers, and behavioral health programs. LISC engaged Health Management Associates – a national consulting group with a focus on publically financed health care – to help facilitate the process. 

Because each community is different, the plans are unique as well. Little Village focuses on establishing a community health worker network to help coordinate, train and support the many community health workers who already work in the neighborhood. South Chicago wants to start a social marketing campaign to leverage local resources to promote wellness and health, starting with a pilot program to address youth violence and mental health issues stemming from community violence. 

"When there’s an opportunity to take a big-picture plan and add more detail, that’s really valuable,” said Simone Alexander, Enlace Chicago's community development director who's overseeing health planning in Little Village. 

In Chicago Lawn, the plan is for a set of focused organizing campaigns aimed at addressing critical issues in the community: expanding and improving access to health care for all, health education for residents and providers, and behavioral health and violence reduction. 

Common ground

Across the neighborhoods, though, there were also common themes and ideas. All three of the plans are built on the idea of deeply including residents into the process, and each include its own version of a “health promoter” – volunteers or staff from the neighborhood who serve as a focal point and liaison for local coordinated health efforts. 

The three plans also emphasize the importance of collaboration and communication between traditional and non-traditional health partners. To David McDowell, the senior organizer at SWOP, the meetings were in some ways as useful as the final document itself. 

“Working together began to strengthen relationships between residents and health care providers,” he explained. “The 2003 quality-of-life planning for NCP [New Communities Program] helped crystallize that idea. Plans are great. But the ability to shift and adjust to changing circumstances, that comes from knowing each other and working together. And, that starts at the table during the planning process.” 

Cross-community communication for the program came from meetings that brought together the lead agencies and key local partners from all three neighborhoods. “It became clear to me that we’re not shooting to do the exact same things in all three communities, but that working together is really more about resource sharing and creating intentional structures to make that happen,” Alexander said. “We could do trainings together, for example. The best way to understand this is from people who are doing it.” 

With the plans finalized and ready for distribution, the next stage is implementation. With grant support from LISC, the three community groups are moving forward early-action projects that can kick-start their efforts, and they’re already using the plans to build and strengthen other partnerships. 

South Chicago’s health plan includes a violence prevention social marketing campaign geared toward local youth.

Samuel said that at a meeting of the health and healing committee of the Mayor's Commission for a Safer Chicago, she talked about South Chicago’s planned violence prevention social marketing campaign. That caught the interest of another committee member, a representative from the Chicago Department of Public Health, and now the department is planning to survey local youth about what kind of messages and messengers would have an impact – and help bring those resources to the neighborhood. 

“The plan absolutely helped get that for our community,” Samuel said. 

“The level of excitement of all the parties at the table has been really high,” added Alexander. “We’ve been trying to do this for so long. Now is finally the right time, with the right connections.” 

LISC Chicago’s neighborhood health work is supported by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, the Otho S.A. Sprague Memorial Institute, The Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, and the Chicago Community Trust.

For more information contact LISC’s Dominique Williams,312-422-9571 or







Posted in Health, Chicago Lawn, Little Village, South Chicago


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