Participating in and changing the conversation about health

Published on
December 28, 2011

What is health? How does it impact my neighborhood? What can we do about it? What is a healthy community?

About a year ago, my notion of health and community began to evolve. Health isn't just about the internal workings of your body or what you put into it. Your mind is affected by the external world and that impacts your body.

For example, stress is a mental problem - but it causes heart attacks. So to can where you live have an impact on your physical health.

Since then I have come to the conclusion that I want to live in a healthy community, and that is something worth fighting for as a reporter and as a resident. There is nothing that compromises my integrity as a reporter when I say people should live in healthy communities.

But it took me a while to tackle the issue head on. First I wrote about blight in the neighborhood, where a 20-acre shopping center sat dilapidated for a decade. Then I wrote an in depth story about economic development. Then I made a connection between helicopter noise and health problems.

Finally with the USC Annenberg Fellowship from the California Endowment, I was at the core of health - exercise and obesity. I began investigating how that foundation of well being linked to the foundation of existence, where you live.

When you cover (and live in) an underserved and ignored neighborhood, you get awfully tired of the overview story that lumps you in with all the generalizations about where you live. These stories by the mainstream start off with an anecdotal lead with a photo to ram home the point. This anecdote serves to represent the millions of people in your area - yet they really only represents one person. I really wanted to dig down and investigate some specific issues that needed some light and go beyond the anecdotal lead.

As I got deeper into the topic, I realized that an overview of health from the South LA perspective had rarely eve been done.

What was our point of view? Normally it would be a combination of African Americans and Latinos, who are the poor. But over the years as I have been working with academics at USC, I have heard a faint refrain that I wanted to explore. Are the problems we are facing black and brown problems or are they money problems?

When you look at teen pregnancy, the drop out rate, drug problems, gangs, what is the common denominator? Not just that these afflict communities of color, but that they affect the poor. What else do the poor have in common - they all live in the same place.

Then the point was brought home by the experts from health organizations we talked with during our fellowship. Where you live affects how you live.

I took a good hard look at where I live. It wasn't always minorities that called South LA home. South Los Angeles was built out by the 1940s and it was all white. Working class whites, the poorest people in Los Angeles. The poor have always called South LA home.

First they were the factory workers when LA was growing up as a city of industry. Then the African Americans in the ‘50 and ‘60 fleeing the segregated south for the promise of being allowed to buy a home. Now the immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America.

I found that bringing up issues of class can have as strong a negative reaction as bringing up issues of discrimination based on race, even with other reporters.

So I had to confront those who believe America is a classless society and those who blame the poor and minorities for the conditions in which they find themselves.

It's a powerful argument - if you are fat, you should stop eating. Personal decisions create gluttonous and slothful people, and those people are usually blacks and browns.

I had to confront those false paradigms. First to emphasize that obesity isn't a minority problem - today the majority of America is overweight. Secondly this does affect certain populations more and that it isn't solely because of their skin color, it's because the poor have always gotten the short stick. Now we are seeing the results.

My tact was to not frame the stories in "he said, she said" because this is not a debate. The argument is over. Here are the facts. People in affluent communites can live 10 years longer than those who live in pooer communities right next door. Poor communities have less access to parks, less public transportation options and poorer infrastructure. When those factors are in place, people are overweight.

So let's do something about it. What should we do? Here are the solutions, ones that have been tested and studied.

This is not a political issue. And it is time to stop looking for two sides. The obesity epidemic is a lot like global warming: After decades of studies were brushed aside, scientists made a conscious decision to do more than let the studies speak for themselves. They became promoters of their studies in the name of science-based evidence.

It was important to not make this about opinions from pundits and talking heads but about facts. I relied on peer-reviewed studies and experts rather than anecdotes. I wanted to show a preponderance of evidence. Academic study after peer-reviewed study all come to nearly identical conclusions about the disparity in health and the household income of our communities.

This also became more than a story in cyberspace. The project brought hundreds of people together to talk about health and created strategic alliances with several groups who all are working to better the community.

Leimert Park Beat organized three events to talk about health and the community. More than 100 people came together for an afternoon to discuss community issues, such as health and economic disparities, with Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks. More than 50 people took an active role in doing something about their health by going on hikes in our community. Community Buid, Childrens Nature Institute, Mujeres de la Tierra, Community Health Councils and others all found common ground and supporters because of these events and stories.

In the end what I thought was a cafefully nuance message turned out to be a powerful argument.

USC, which tracks media mentions of their professors, posted this write-up:

"KCET-TV cited research by the USC Center for Sustainable Cities suggesting that deliberate city planning segregated minorities away from park areas, and quoted Travis Longcore of the USC Dornsife College about the benefits of open space. The story was produced in collaboration with the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, which are administered by the USC Annenberg School."

The marketing manager for First 5 LA, an advocacy organization created to improve the lives of children in L.A. County, from prenatal through age 5, sent out a system wide email with a link to one of my stories. The subject line: "Warning... This May make you angry." The body of the email continued: "It does that to me" followed with a link.

Shortly after the series ran the mayor of Los Angeles called for the creation of 50 new pocket parks, starting in South LA.

"The mayor said city workers have been scouring Los Angeles to find locations to create small parks, especially in some of the most densely populated neighborhoods," the Los Angeles Times story stated.

Parts of the series ran in four different publications: KCET public television, news magazine SoCal Connected, news site Intersections South LA and Leimert Park Beat.

I believe I helped change the conversation.

Special Report from Leimert Park

Image removed.

Part 1 - Healthy 'Hoods: Obesity is a problem in Los Angeles, but South LA suffers more.
Part 2 - Healthy 'Hoods: How do you build a healthy community?
Part 3 - Healthy 'Hoods: Getting Outdoors in South Los Angeles.
Part 4 - Healthy 'Hoods: Leimert Park's Hidden Passage to Health.
Part 5 - Healthy 'Hoods: Greening South Los Angeles.
Follow up: Starting in South LA, 50 new parks to be built in Los Angeles

SoCal Connected:

Obesity Epidemic Hits South L.A. Harder Than MostCreating Healthy NeighborhoodsLeimert Park's Hidden Passage to HealthOptions and Obstacles in Greening the City

KCET Public Television:

Getting Outdoors in South Los Angeles

Intersections South LA:

Creating healthy neighborhoods

Obesity epidemic hits South L.A. harder than most