Hip Hop artist and Chicago native Common helped kick off the latest “Closing the Gap on Infant Mortality” statewide campaign Monday with an appearance at Austin’s West Side Health Authority.

The latest ad campaign features Common promoting the importance of seeking early prenatal care. Common joined health advocates Monday at the headquarters of the West Side Health Authority, 5437 W. Division, to launch the second phase of Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s Closing the Gap awareness campaign. Launched in 2004, the Closing the Gap initiative aims to reduce the rate of pre-mature deaths among black infants.

“This is a community issue and a family issue,” said Angela Ellison, project director for Closing the Gap with the Illinois Maternal Child Health Coalition, the initiative’s sponsoring group.

African-American infants have the highest rate of pre-mature birth in the United States at 17 percent. Austin and several other black communities in Chicago were targeted for their high pre-maturity rates.

Health agencies and organizations, including the March of Dimes, The Illinois Department of Health, and SIDS of Illinois, have partnered with the coalition in the campaign.

“It makes no sense for us to have infant mortality rates that rival Third World countries,” said Carol Adams of the Illinois Department of Human Services.

Common, a South Side native, will be featured in ads placed on 500 CTA trains and buses and on billboards throughout Chicago. He said he was honored to participate and wants to help get the word out.

“Awareness is the key to everything,” he said. “Just being aware of what’s happening and being able to go out and seek help is important. We as artists, we go around with our busy schedules and all these things, but when we have community leaders who sit us down and say, ‘Look, this is happening,’ I can go out and voice it more. It won’t just be this ad, which is very important, and I’m very grateful to be a part of it, but when I go out there to speak on it, I’m not going to waste people’s time.”

The first ad campaign featured “Baby Terrell,” a pre-mature infant. The “Closing the Gap” initiative also includes peer educators who instruct parents on pre-natal care.

Ellison said the new campaign, which involved community focus groups, should help increase awareness.

“When we did the focus groups, we showed his picture, and they said ‘We would look at it,'” she said. Everyone said they would look at the ad just because [Common’s] face was on it. We’re having a penetration with our peer educators but now that we have a face the city knows, I think we’re going to reach the young people who may not have been paying attention the first time.”

For more information about the Closing the Gap on Infant Mortality initiative, visit www.ilmaternal.org.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com