Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Place Matters

If you haven't heard, the Racial Healing Initiative of the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society is doing some pretty great things in Kalamazoo in partnership with some pretty great organizations. Every month since September 2013, the Racial Healing Initiative and the Kalamazoo Valley Community College's Arcadia Campus Committee for Cultural Understanding have been screening sections of the documentary film: Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? The film, which is broken into half hour segments, explores how socioeconomic and racial inequalities severely--and often shockingly--affect our physical health. The screening, which is free and open to the public, is followed each month by a discussion facilitated by the YWCA, which gives community members a chance to explore exactly how the issues presented in each section of the film are playing out in our own community.

"Health is embedded in the larger conditions in which we live and work"

January's Lunchtime Film Series segment was called "Place Matters," and it examined how closely one's physical environment and neighborhood determines risk factors in health. In this section of the film, we follow Gwai, a Burmese refugee now settled in the run down city of Richmond, California. Once a bustling and successful city in the '40s, Gwai's neighborhood in Richmond is now struggling due to the closing of the shipyard and the subsequent loss of thousands of jobs. While white families were able to use federally funded loans to move out of the dying city and start new, many families of color were not afforded that opportunity. According to the film, "Between 1934 and 1962, less than 2% of $120 billion in government-backed home loans went to non-white households. In Northern California around the same time period, out of 350,000 federally guaranteed new home loans, fewer than 100 went to Black families." This left many folks of color in Richmond, where all the jobs, economic stability and opportunity were leaving. 

Gwai, now living in this low-income area finds himself with a lack of access to safe and affordable housing, wholesome, healthy foods and employment. He has become a statistic, a low-income man of color fighting heart disease in his 50's. The documentary notes chronic stress as a possible contributor to his condition, as the constant pumping out of cortisol and adrenalin has the power to weaken immune systems and significantly increase the risk of illness. The film notes that his stress in life is massive, and the "accumulation of multiple negative stressors" (such as unpaid bills, dangerous neighborhoods, little money, racial inequality and a lack of fresh, wholesome foods) with fewer opportunities to cope (such as vacations, extra income to relax with an indulgent cup of coffee, the chance to take a safe and comfortable walk in a neighborhood with green trees) all this compounds his stress. Sending him into a spiral of mental, emotional and physical distress. Here, place matters. 

More often than not, the documentary explains, folks cannot simply choose to escape these stressors when they live in these neighborhoods, for "choices of individuals are often limited by the environment in which they live." When we shop, we tend to shop in areas that we can access, which tend to be those areas closest to our homes, especially if we are low on cash money or transportation. The documentary informs us that buying a cars in low income neigborhoods are on average $500 more expensive, as is the trend with groceries and many other goods and services. This phenomenon, dubbed the "poverty tax," tends to perpetuate the problem for these neighborhoods and keep people in. All in all, "Place Matters" shows us that there is a very close correlation between income and health. Without a safe and inviting social environment with access to good, healthy food and employment, and free from chemical exposure, statistics show that these living environments lead to lower life expectancy and much higher rates of asthma, diabetes, heart disease and other health ailments.

My favorite part of these Lunchtime Film Series meetings is, naturally, the dialogue that happens after the screening of the film. Since joining on with the Black Heritage Society, I've seen it proven time and again that people are starving for dialogue about race. Our January Lunchtime Film Series brought out the largest crowd yet, giving way for some welcomed discussion--facilitated flawlessly, of course, by YWCA staff Cheree and Sheri. Every day, and especially during each event, I am learning not only more about race and racism, but more and more about how it plays out in this little city I call home. Kalamazoo Community members are some fantastic people. If you're looking for a way to get involved, please join in on the discussions we are having. 

The next screening of Unnatural Causes will be on February 19, 12:00-1:00PM at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. Remember, its free and open to the public! Bring a sack lunch and we'll feed you cookies, coffee and pop. Check out the Unnatural Causes site if you're interested in learning more about the documentary.

Furthermore, you have a wonderful chance to be a part of dialogue and creating change in Kalamazoo by joining us for our follow-up to the Summit on Racism 2.0, which was held in November 2013.  During the Summit on Racism, over 100 passionate community members gathered together to develop action plans and address institutional racism in Employment, Health, Housing, Education and Law Enforcement in Kalamazoo. We are following up with a response to evaluations from event participants who asked for ways to delve deeper. We are creating a space for community members to return to these issues, make moves and create Action Networks to help organize communication and collaboration about racism in these areas.

At this session groups will be given the chance to identify the most urgent issues and ways forward in one of the five areas of focus, establish preliminary action plans for combating racism and create protocol for communication for groups to best collaborate and grow. 

Our first Action Network organizational session is Friday, March 7, 2014 from 12:00-2:00PM at the YWCA of Kalamazoo, located at 353 E. Michigan. It is free and open to the public, so bring your lunch, we'll provide cookies and beverages. Please RSVP by Friday, February 21 to

And finally! Here is nifty a food desert locator. Although I cannot get the darn thing to work on my computer (since it is a 2007 two time hand-me-down I got for free (thanks, Kevin and Tina!)) it looks like a cool resource. Click on this link and look up your own community!
 Food Desert Locator