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Health, Community Development Go Hand-in-Hand

When Maggie Perales first went to work for the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) in 1997, few of her colleagues thought of health as a major concern in their Chicago Lawn community.

But as the years went on and the organization addressed an expanding set of local issues, it became clear that an explicit focus on residents’ physical and emotional wellbeing was vital if they were to truly strengthen their neighborhood.

“As we were talking with people and building relationships with their families, we heard a lot of stories about individuals struggling to get by without health insurance,” she said. “I remember back in 2006 when we were working on predatory lending we heard from people who were losing their homes due to the high cost of medical coverage.”

Residents and community leaders in South Chicago work on a plan to improve health throughout the South Side neighborhood.

Gordon Walek

In many ways, SWOP’s realization proved prescient. The hard-won passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) several years later would launch a national conversation on the role of health care in cultivating resilient communities. A simultaneous economic recession would force even more people to grapple with the question of how to stay well under difficult financial circumstances.

This shift in consciousness was taking place here in Chicago as well. When neighborhood groups came together to draft the first round of Quality-of-Life plans in the early 2000s, few of the final documents touched directly on health. When partners reconvened a decade later, the issue emerged as a major consideration.

Chris Brown, LISC Chicago’s director of education and engagement, said these concurrent national and local conversations made it clear that neighborhood groups were expanding their conception of community development to include an emphasis on health. And thanks to its well established role as a citywide convener of residents and organizations, LISC was in a position to help facilitate this shift.

Having now successfully implemented several health initiatives, the organization is looking toward the future as it strives to provide even more Chicagoans with the resources and knowledge they need to live longer, healthier lives.

Foray into health

While LISC Chicago’s first official step into the world of public health came as a convener of neighborhood partners for the city’s Healthy Chicago plan, many LISC staff members say the organization’s brand of holistic community development has always touched on health – albeit in sometimes less than obvious ways.

“I think this is something LISC has always worked on if you adopt a broad definition of health,” said Program Officer Dominique Williams. “Health is more than health care.”

This idea of community development being inherently intertwined with public health was recently articulated by LISC CEO Michael Rubinger.

“We have come to understand that poverty and public health, in many ways, are part and parcel of the same thing,” he said. “The social determinants of health – things like housing, access to physical activity, quality food, safety – are all issues those of us in community development have been addressing for years, but without thinking how they affect people’s health.”

To Rubinger’s point, LISC Chicago frequently works with neighborhood leaders to help them understand health is about more than access to care.

“It’s much bigger than simply being able to see a doctor, and I think that’s coming into the collective consciousness much more so than it had in the past,” said Brown.

Through LISC Chicago's Elev8 program, Chicago public school students received a variety of health services, including eye tests at Oglesby School.

Gordon Walek

A focus on social determinants is especially necessary in low-income and minority neighborhoods where LISC already maintains an active presence. According to statistics compiled by the Chicago Department of Public Health, these communities are especially hard hit by everything from obesity to preventable cancer mortality.

Due to its deeply rooted relationships with various community organizations, LISC is uniquely positioned to connect Chicagoans with the resources they need to address these issues.

“We’re not health experts; we’re neighborhood experts,” Williams said. “That’s why we want to make sure we’re at tables where health conversations are taking place so we can take some of that expertise back to our community partners.”

Targeted interventions

In the years since health has moved to the forefront of LISC Chicago’s agenda, several initiatives have helped close the gap between community development and public health.

Elev8 Chicago, for example, brought five school-based health centers to neighborhoods across the city. While focused heavily on meeting the needs of Chicago adolescents, the centers also serve as important community health providers and anchors for residents of all ages.

They offer comprehensive health education, physicals, immunizations and counseling, among other services. In doing so, they provide convenient access to high-quality health care that was previously unavailable in many of the neighborhoods they serve. At their core, these clinics seek to level the playing field so that all Chicago children, regardless of their zip code, are empowered to live healthy lives.

LISC also helped mobilize community organizations to enroll Chicagoans in health insurance plans under the ACA and Illinois AllKids. Thanks to funding and expertise from LISC, more than 20 local agencies trained organizers in 30 neighborhoods. These individuals went on to connect with 60,000 residents and successfully enroll 6,000.

Aside from the obvious win of extending coverage to those who had gone without it, these campaigns cultivated important relationships between organizers from a wide array of institutions who continue spearheading health initiatives to this day.

Early in 2015, LISC facilitated a neighborhood health planning processes in Chicago Lawn, South Chicago and Little Village. Working with a lead agency in each neighborhood, LISC brought residents together to strategically plan for a future in which more Chicagoans have access to the resources and knowledge they need to take control of their health.

In Little Village, this process led to the formalization of a network of health promoters who represent various community organizations and meet monthly to coordinate strategic neighborhood health campaigns.

“That network and its impact is definitely growing,” said Nicole Llorens of Enlace Chicago. “I think the planning process really gave a specific aspect of our work momentum, but the conversation has grown from there to involve everyone in the community.”

The success of these and other programs helped broadcast to the larger community development field that partnerships with public health professionals can yield improved results for all involved.

“There’s a realization on both sides of the equation that we have to be working toward that sweet spot, and it’s in that place that we’ll really be able to make a difference,” Brown said.

LISC Chicago and its partner neighborhood organizations were in the vanguard in getting the word out about the benefits of the Affordable Care Act.

Gordon Walek

While some partner organizations such as SWOP and Enlace have enthusiastically embraced these efforts, others continue working to determine how health figures into their missions.

To that end, LISC hosts regular sessions in which interested Chicagoans can learn about issues such as public health data sources and relevant best practices. In doing so, the hopes are to continue cultivating the idea that health is an essential component of neighborhood development.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm among our partners, but sometimes there’s a lack of public health knowledge that’s necessary to get things done,” Williams said. “Health experts and community organizations sometimes speak a different language, and that’s where LISC wants to step in and help.”

LISC Chicago’s health work has been generously supported by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, the Chicago Community Trust, the Otho S.A. Sprague Memorial Foundation, the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies among others.

Posted in Health


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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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