By Kristin Boza
Healthy Chicago Equity Zones (HCEZ) are part of Healthy Chicago 2025, the City of Chicago’s community health improvement plan to develop strategies to close the racial life expectancy gap. The HCEZ aims to promote local engagement, regional public health priority setting, and improved coordination between Cook County Department of Public Health (CDPH) and Chicago communities.
All 77 Chicago communities are touched by this initiative and are divided into six regions: Far South, Near South, North/Central, Northwest, West and Southwest. The Far South region is made up of 13 communities which includes Beverly/Morgan Park Burnside, Calumet Heights, East Side, Hegewisch, Mount Greenwood, Pullman, Riverdale, Roseland, South Deering, Washington Heights, and West Pullman.
Dr. Tonya S. Roberson is a community psychologist who works in the College of Health and Human Services Department at Governors State University. Governors State is an active partner of Phalanx Family Services, which was chosen as the lead agency for the Far South region to carry out HCEZ’s initiatives. Tina Sanders is the CEO of Phalanx Family Services, and Dr. Joyce Chapman is the Program Coordinator. These three women, the community liaisons and leads are working collaboratively to engage with the local community to impact health disparities and inequities.
“The HCEZ initiative aligns with the goals of the City’s community health improvement plan, Healthy Chicago 2025. This is vital for residents because this community-based plan outlines strategies to promote local engagement, close the racial life expectancy gap by addressing the social and environmental factors that contribute to health and racial inequity, and develop public health investments in neighborhoods to ensure every neighborhood has an equitable opportunity for health and well-being and impact,” Roberson said.
The Far South region is working with community leaders, engaged residents, local businesses, government agencies, and health care facilities to help improve the overall health of the population. The team is working with organizations, like BAPA, to gain assistance in reaching the community. BAPA has hosted HCEZ focus groups and together they will host a health forum in February at Smith Village.
“Together we connect with families and those in need to determine what options are available to them to improve health and overall well-being,” Roberson said. “We conduct research and analysis to determine the concerns and issues in our communities and how to improve these different issues and challenges in the public health sector. We focus on providing resources and information to these entities that will hopefully lead to improved programs and policies that have a direct impact on the future health of the public.”
HCEZ started during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the team worked to educate the community on vaccinations. They are continuing to address the vaccine boosters and vaccine hesitancy. Ongoing community outreach, such as conducting focus groups and administering surveys to address the social determinants in the communities that affect health, like poverty, unequal access to health care, lack of education, stigma, and racism.
“These are underlying, contributing factors of health inequities and we are working to combat some of these issues,” Roberson said. “Community is at the heart of public health. The Far South prides its work on having the right people at the table and including the community at the inception of everything that we do. We want to hear from the community.”
A goal is making sure communities are prepared for the next pandemic; as Dr. Roberson says, Covid-19 was not the first pandemic and won’t be the last.
“We as leaders need to ensure that all communities are ready, not only when a pandemic comes, but for any health conversation,” she said. “We need to be inclusive and involve the community members in all activities, from identifying the relevant issues and making decisions about how to address them, to evaluating and sharing the results with the community.”
Practicing collective intelligence and collective impact gives community leaders to the opportunity to work together to be more accurate when identifying problems and developing real-time, defined solutions, according to Dr. Roberson.
“We also believe that conflict will be minimized if people have had a chance to ‘buy into’ the process. “True community engagement” is a vital part of conducting a community health assessment and a community health improvement plan, both required components of the Local Public Health Assessment and planning cycle,” she said.
If you have questions or would like to get involved, contact Phalanx Family Services, PhalanxGrpServices.org, 773-291-1086, firstname.lastname@example.org.