As a Program Coordinator for the Partnership for a Healthier Bronx at Bronx Health REACH , Emma Rodgers helps to lead a community-based coalition that is working to reduce disparities in health outcomes in the Bronx. Emma attributes her passion for her work to the people, organizations, and spirit of residents and leaders in the Bronx and her family’s positive and negative experiences in the US health system. Emma’s recognition that stress is a major factor in the health outcomes of residents in the Bronx and her conviction for involving communities at the forefront of public health strategies to reduce health inequities contribute to our great respect for her and her work. Emma’s experiences reflect the opportunities and challenges of sustaining coalition-based work to address persistent health inequities.
Career in Profile
- 2004 – BA in Government from Smith College, Northhampton, MA
- 2004-2006 – Marketing Coordinator, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York City, NY
- 2006-2008 – Associate Director of Planning and Buying, HN Media & Marketing, New York, NY
- 2009-2010 – Intern, Division of Violence Prevention, Boston Public Health Commission, Boston, MA
- 2010 – Graduated with a M.S. in Public Health from Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA
- 2010-2012 – Borough Organizer, Bronx Smoke-Free Partnership, New York City Coalition for a Smoke-Free City, Bronx, NY
- 2013-NOW – Adjunct Professor, Bronx Community College, Bronx, NY
- 2012-NOW – Program Coordinator for the Partnership for a Healthier Bronx, Bronx Health REACH, Institute for Family Health, New York, NY
What inspires you and the work that you do?
I would say it’s the resilient and magnificent residents and organizations of the South Bronx. The South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the country. We’re the hungriest, most obese, most overweight – all of these things that say it’s a terrible place to live, to go to school, to work, raise a family. And yet there are so many amazing people and organizations doing wonderful things. This includes community members who recently became Zumba instructors and are advocating to improve their local park. There’s also an affordable housing provider who, in addition to creating a new green, mixed-use development that will have a rooftop farm, supermarket, music and recreation center and affordable housing, is also looking to promote bike lanes, and to create a business improvement district. It is really an exciting time in the South Bronx. I feel very privileged to be part of this community and blessed that residents and organizations have included me in their families and in the work that they’re doing.
A lot of your work involves engaging community members and it follows a community organizing strategy. What inspires this approach to your work?
Historically, residents of the South Bronx and other low-income communities have not been involved in most aspects of public health programs. Outsiders, much like myself, would come into the community, identify the needs and the solutions, and implement programs without ever consulting the community. The community is an afterthought, a box that you check when you’ve done focus groups to make sure your program is on the right path. The community is never part of the process and more importantly, they’re never leading the process. In turn, many of these programs have not addressed the real needs of the community, never included culturally appropriate activities and materials, and the programs were unsuccessful and/or unsustainable. Doing true community-based public work might be frustrating to researchers and funders, because it takes longer – ten years, not two, like most grants. However, at the end of the day, it is my experience that these programs are much more successful, because the community is empowered and the real, root causes of these health issues are identified and addressed. Community residents know their community best, not me. At the end of the day, I go home to a different borough and no matter how many years I work in the Bronx and how many degrees I have, I always remember that. My job is to listen and support Bronx residents and organizations in any way that I can to make sure the health of Bronx residents improves.
What is a career success that you’re particularly proud of?
One of the primary goals of the initiative that I’m funded under is to create a borough-wide coalition. Much of my time is spent engaging partners, residents, and city agencies in other parts of the borough where my organization traditionally didn’t work. Last year, I was really proud of the work our group did around increasing access to healthy food. Many areas of the Bronx are food deserts or food swamps. Although fantastic new supermarkets are popping up every year, many communities still do not have access to healthy food in their neighborhood – bodegas and fast food restaurants are their only options. When I started my job, I had very little experience working in the food arena. Our funders wanted us to continue to “adopt” bodegas to transform them into healthy food retailers. However, despite the lack of healthy food, this initiative didn’t make much sense to me as our organizations didn’t have the capacity to help hundreds of individual bodegas and there already seemed to be a lot of organizations doing this work. Instead, we felt we would be much more helpful if we tried to coordinate the existing bodega work, which seemed abundant, but disorganized. It was common for two organizations in the same neighborhood to be doing similar programs, yet neither would know about the other. So, for the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time identifying which groups were doing the work, what resources each group had, what were the most successful programs, and how we could all work together to reach more people and create better programs. To my delight, most of the community groups and city agencies that I reached out to were thrilled to partner with other groups and be part of our larger coalition’s efforts. These organizations met monthly for almost a year, developed joint evaluation tools, shared best practices and many of the groups are now working together on joint bodega initiatives. Although there were many bumps in the road, this was a big win for the Bronx and my program.
What are some challenges that you’ve encountered or that you may continue to face in your career?
Funding is a big challenge. Despite the fact that community organizing is once again “hip” thanks to President Obama and many grant applications require community engagement, there is still very little funding for the work that I do — the pot of money is getting smaller and smaller and many of these larger initiatives are just not being funded at the same level. For many years, Bronx Health REACH was primarily funded through the REACH program (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health) at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). That was a very large grant that supported a very large staff and our partners for many years. In 2012, we became a sub-recipient of the Community Transformation Grant from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; however, this was significantly less funding, supporting only a few staff members. To top it all off, we just received word that the grant will end next fall, two years before it was expected to end.
Another major big challenge is that I’m not allowed to do policy and advocacy work, because I’m funded through the Affordable Care Act. All I can really do is educate people about different health issues and programs and hope that these community groups and residents will take their concerns to their elected officials and they will create legislation or increase funding for health programs. This is very frustrating, because I know that legislation is an extremely effective way to improve the health of a large community – a population-based approach is more effective and cheaper than going door to door. Also, it’s a lot to ask people who have kids, 3 jobs, and other major life stressors to do this work in their very limited free time. I understand why my funding prohibits me from working on policy. However, again, for people who have been doing this work for a long time and know what works, it’s very frustrating.
Finally, from an organizing standpoint, it’s hard to create a coalition when the “peaks” in your campaign are fairly small – an event, creating a curriculum, etc. Advocacy campaigns are exciting, have clear goals – they are something concrete that your community partners can rally around. In some ways, I think our coalition members are not as active right now, because there isn’t a specific campaign that we’re all working on together.
When it comes to public health, what matters to you and why?
Having the community at the forefront of what we do, especially in low-income communities. I think that in addition to making our programs more successful, you can’t morally do a program without having the community be at the forefront of the work. Also, again, it is important to increase funding for programs that focus on reducing health disparities in our country. I feel very privileged to live and work in a city where public health is a priority. Although much progress has been made, it is maddening how different a child’s life can be in one neighborhood versus the next. It’s unacceptable. I am hopeful though with our new Mayor. Finally, there continues to be limited funding for mental health programs and continued stigma around mental health issues in general. In the communities where I work and among my own family and friends, there is such a great need for mental health services. Despite increased attention these last few years, we have a long way to go.
Is there a persistent public health problem that still concerns you?
The challenge in many ways is that a lot of the health issues that are important to me and to others are rooted in poverty. The head of the Bronx District Public Health Office once famously said, ‘The Health Department shouldn’t be called the Health Department. It should be called the Department of Poverty Reduction.’ If we could possibly solve that problem, so many things would be fixed. It’s going to be a long time before an equitable society exists, but I’m encouraged by conversations with community leaders and organizations and grant applications that require public health groups to engage multiple sectors in their work and develop programs that properly address the root causes of health inequities in this country. My most exiting and impactful programs are those that include schools, housing providers, transportation and other sectors.
On the flip side, one of the big successes is tobacco control. The 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General’s report was released in January. When you think about how far we’ve come in this country – especially in New York City — with regards to smoking, it’s pretty amazing. The Bronx is tied with Brooklyn for the second lowest youth smoking rate in New York City at 6.7%. This is a real bright spot for the Bronx and the country.