What makes a community healthy?
That was the question posed to teenagers by Youth UpRising in Oakland, CA. The mostly African-American youth responded that it is a place where bullets don’t fly, where their friends are not buried before they’re old enough to vote, where there are fewer liquor stores than there are grocery stores.
Their answers spoke directly to the findings in new research released this week from The California Endowment that found African-American and Latino boys and young men are more likely to experience poor health outcomes as their white counterparts.
For instance, Latino boys and young men are more than four times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than their white peers. Young African-American men are 16 times more likely to die from homicides than young white men.
While these findings aren’t new, what is new is the evidence that points to a dramatic link between poor health and the neighborhoods where these boys live, play and go to school.
Why does place matter?
If you grow up in a neighborhood where you’re not safe, where your school is failing you, and where the nearest park or grocery store is miles away, then you are far more likely to live a shorter life, to earn less money, to be a party or victim of violence. In short, you are far less likely to be healthy.
This is an all-too-common reality for far too many of California’s boys and young men of color.
Yet, when young men suffer from the trauma of growing up in their neighborhoods, their symptoms are interpreted as a sign that they are delinquents or sociopaths, instead of what they truly are: signs of poor physical and emotional health.
Unfortunately, the very institutions that are supposed to help young men succeed in life and stay on track fail them by taking punitive approaches that end up doing more harm than good.
A growing body of research has identified alternative approaches that make it clear that the unequal chances that boys and men of color face are not immutable.
Place and policy matter. A lot. Particularly policies that encourage community-based solutions that involves the cooperation of all of the institutions that touch and influence these boys’ lives.
The California Endowment is working to do its part with a 10-year strategic agenda — Building Healthy Communities — aimed at improving health outcomes for all Californians, including boys and young men of color, by creating neighborhoods that support health. True to the report findings, a big part of our strategy involves focusing locally on California communities, from Oakland to Fresno to Los Angeles.
If we want strong and thriving communities, we have to make sure that all of the community is healthy. This means that we have to be willing to include boys and young men in our efforts to clean the air we breathe, improve the quality of the food where we shop, and make getting to school or work safer and cheaper.
When we change the place, we change the boy — and the man he’ll grow up to be.
Robert Phillips is the Director of Health and Human Services for The California Endowment.