There’s a stark 16-year gap between Garfield Park, where residents have a life expectancy of 69 years, and the Loop where the life expectancy is 85 years.
West Side United, a public-private coalition of West Side hospitals, professionals and residents, has raised $10.5 million to fund projects that it say will help reduce this “death gap” 50 percent by 2030.
The group convened on March 5 at Malcolm X College to share progress from 2018 and present a strategic plan for 2019 to supporters, local residents and other stakeholders. So far the group has paid out about $2 million in economic justice and public health projects, grants and loans, which it believes are key to closing the gap.
Additionally, local leaders who spoke at the event urged West Side residents to seize the moment and get involved in leadership positions within the group in 2019. West Side United opened online applications for its new Community Advisory Council during Tuesday’s event. The 17-member committee will keep a finger on the pulse of the West Side and contribute to initiatives and strategic planning for the group. Applications are due April 15.
“The West Side has been long overlooked and it is time now for the West Side to rise, and this room is a testimony to that,” said Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president for Community Health Equity at Rush. Over 400 supporters, community members and medical personnel were present at Tuesday’s event.
Last year, West Side United invested $1.7 million in loans in six community development projects while expanding its reach to funding West Side businesses through a small business accelerator program worth $85,000 in partnership with Accion and Northern Trust. Seven local small businesses received grants between $1,000 and $15,000. Several of the winning businesses were present at the event including North Lawndale’s Sweet Beginnings, LLC, which employs returning citizens to make honey-infused skin care products.
West Side United also launched the medical assistant pathway program (MAPP) and invested $1.7 million in affordable housing, youth services and capacity building last year. This included employing 400 high school students in summer internships in the past year.
Community health workers and mental health services received grants worth $250,000 last year that will provide improved medical care to 1,700 West Side residents. One mental health counselor Daniel Vergara, who works for grantee Esperanza Health, said he is proud to be involved in West Side United. Vergara decided in graduate school to stay in Little Village to serve his community. He told the audience that he never encountered a school counselor throughout his entire Chicago Public Schools education. “Sometimes we have moments and we don’t know how to process them, especially as children,” said Vergara. “I want to be the person that I needed as a child,” he told the audience.
Despite progress, speakers at the event say there is much more work to be done. West Side United pledged at the event that by 2021, it will hire 3,500 new West Side staff throughout its medical and social network and spend $100 million in new West Side procurement. The group also promised to triple West Side impact-investing funding to $7.5 million and spend $250,000 in small business grants — all by 2021.
The next initiative for the group is “Live Healthy, West Side!” which will focus on hypertension and maternal child health. This includes a food voucher program, which will reach 1,000 families per month by 2021, and a nutrition education program in some West Side schools. The group plans to bring more economic opportunities for young people: 600 high school internships and new career exposure programs will be launched in some elementary schools.
Residents on the West Side experience rates of chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma, hypertension and infant mortality rates far above the national average while shouldering the burden of decades of disinvestment, according to organizers. In early 2017, Rush University Medical Center, Cook County Health and Hospitals System and the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System joined forces to find ways to reverse the consequences of that disinvestment. The group soon grew to include Presence Health, Ann & Robert Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Sinai Health System, community organizations, residents, the faith-based community and business and government leaders that coordinate investments in neighborhood health and economic development programs.
Ayesha Jaco, senior program director, says that leading the West Side United team has been “healing” and deeply connected to her own family’s migration to the West Side. “My elders and ancestors migrated from the Mississippi Delta to North Lawndale in search of better jobs, housing and educational opportunities for our family,” she said.
Jaco shared her family’s memories of the aftermath of the 1968 riots and the hope behind Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, which advocated for proper medical attention, affordable housing, living wages and a restoration of budget cuts to Head Start programming and summer jobs. “Fifty-two years later, elements of this campaign have not been achieved,” said Jaco. “But West Side United is committed to dismantling these historical inequities.”
Community engagement and leadership was a stressed priority in 2019 for the group at Tuesday’s event. “My vision for West Side United is to strengthen the blueprints for change and sustainability that have been created in church basements, park districts, small businesses and community board rooms,” Jaco said.
Angela Taylor, a West Side United planning committee member and the wellness coordinator at the Garfield Park Community Council, said she sees West Side United as an acknowledgement of the Medical District’s decades of disinvestment in its surrounding neighborhoods.
“For many years there have been a level of distrust in large institutions and a collaborative of this nature, [like] they just gonna come in and suck all the life out of us and drop a few dimes and go away,” she said.
“To realize that the medical community has come together to have ownership of what this investment means on the West Side, and they have steered a course to correct that, that to me as a community resident means more than anything,” said Taylor to the audience.
This report was produced by City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab. Learn more and get involved at www.citybureau.org. This spring, City Bureau reporters are examining community health on the West Side; please send any tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.