By Jessica Yorko, Environmental Justice Coordinator, Ingham County Health Department

Environmental Justice (EJ) is essential to achieving health equity—defined as a fair, just distribution of the social resources and social opportunities needed to achieve well-being.

Inequities and disparities ripe for change:

  • At 36%, Ingham County’s childhood asthma hospitalization rate is twice the state rate and secopaintnd-highest in the state by county, and asthma outcomes for people of color are 3-4 times worse than asthma outcomes for white residents
  • From 2009 through 2011, only two of the 114 documented lead-poisoned children in Ingham County benefitted from increasingly limited resources available for residential lead-hazard abatement
  • 54% of all restaurants in Ingham County are fast-food, and 13% of our low-income residents do not live close to a grocery store ( >1 mile for non-rural and >10 miles for rural)

Discussions with residents reveals “healthy, safe, stable, affordable rental housing” as a top EJ concern for Ingham County. Community-identified solutions include:

  • Demystifying property maintenance laws and enforcement bathrooms
  • Empowering tenants with information about rights and responsibilities
  • Improving tenant-landlord relations
  • Increasing healthy homes practices in rental housing
  • Exploring partnerships with National Green and Healthy Homes Initiative and Action of Greater Lansing
  • Connecting renters to the Center for Financial Health, Financial Empowerment Center, Ingham County Eviction Diversion Program, MSU College of Law Housing Clinic, Legal Aid of South Central Michigan and Ingham County Land Bank’s Home Buyers Club

To affect change, Ingham County Health Department works closely with residents and grassroots organizations, listening and supporting with data, facilitation, training and tools. Our work with community-based groups was recognized by the National Opinion Research Center in their July 2012 report: Improving Community Health through Policy.

While many of us love fancy data, tools and methods, it is equally–if not more–important to know real-life stories. Below is a story of an Ingham resident seeking healthy housing, and the role that ICHD is playing in her quest:

Last week a woman we’ll call “Natasha” came to our office carrying a plastic shopping bag containing several large chunks of drywall covered in fine, black powder. Natasha is a bright, young, single mother of two who just finished college and moved into her first apartment. She is also African-American. With limited time before needing to get home to meet the Head Start bus, Natasha told me about her asthmatic kids requiring nebulizers since the move, the drywall crumbling the day before to reveal the black residue, and her fear that it was mold. She notified her landlord after heavy rain flooded the apartment the week prior, and they removed the standing water but did not ventilate or dehumidify the unit.

I introduced Natasha to our Toxicologist, who scheduled an in-home mold-hazard assessment. Natasha was holding, along with the bag and her keys, a bright green lighter. I asked her to tell me honestly if she smoked, and she said no, but that she had been burning sage and incense because of a musty smell in the apartment and on her clothes. Her windows had no screens, making her reluctant to open them.

We covered the importance of not burning scented candles, incense, cigarettes, sage or anything else; using non-irritating air fresheners and cleaners; controlling indoor moisture; and working with the property owner to get the screens and other problems taken care of. She agreed to get a dehumidifier that day and not to burn or spray scents or cleaners. I gave her a copy of our local housing ordinance, went over some basics about renter’s rights, and confirmed that her kids had a primary care physician and an asthma action plan. Eventually her worried face relaxed. Smiling, she thanked me and promised to call or come back if she was not able to improve the situation.

At the 2013 Everybody Eats Conference, we launched the Mid-Michigan Food Story Project, a tool for personal expression, healing and change. We are interviewing Mid-Michigan residents about the role of food in their lives, in the context of health, family, work, culture, faith, identity and daily routines, for inclusion in online and print publications. These stories add depth to our health and environmental data, providing powerful perspectives and new partners in improving food access and eating habits. Asking for and receiving stories also strengthens our bonds and awareness, as we learn about one another’s journeys and find new ways to work together. Below is a portion of a story about one man’s food journey. His story and many others are at midmichiganfoodstories.blog.com.

I grew up in a family of six kids (one sister and five brothers). I remember my mother teaching me to cook eggs at age eight, and were something I would make for breakfast every morning. I grew up eating a lot of meat dishes—cow heart on Sundays and fried, greasy pork chops—always meat and potatoes. In elementary school, students would go to the McDonald’s across the street because it was a new restaurant. This was in 1971, it was part of a school activity…I never learned how to cook and sometimes I think that it was kind of a sexist thing. Now, I feel like that was a huge part of my life. When I was 14, my mother died of cancer and we were in and out of hospitals a lot during that time. I became aware of the medical system because of this. My brother became a cardiologist—one of the first doctors to perform an angioplasty on individuals with enlarged hearts. I watched him doing his work and learning about these procedures, but not thinking about the causes of heart disease as they pertained to him. We all assumed that they could fix your heart attack and this prevented us from making changes in our lives.

fox island montageIngham County is fertile ground for reducing health disparities. Education, direct-service and advocacy characterized by listening and collaboration enriches our connections and exchanges. We caringly confront and teach confrontation of root causes of gaps in heath. And, with an ever-growing network of community-based partners, we plant and water bright seeds for policy, system and environmental changes that create health equity.

Help us sow the ground, plant the seeds, water the fields and strengthen our roots. There is room for everyone in this work.
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This is the third in a multi-part blog series on Environmental Justice. Learn more and get involved by contacting Jessica Yorko, Ingham County Environmental Justice Coordinator at 517-272-4144 or jyorko@ingham.org. To take part in the Mid-Michigan Food Story Project, contact Amy Jacobs and Jazmin Williams at ichdinterns@gmail.com or 517-887-4539.

Follow Ingham County Health Department:
Facebook: www.facebook.com/InghamHealth
Twitter: https://twitter.com/InghamHealth
Online: http://hd.ingham.org

See also:
What is Environmental Justice and How Do We Get There?
From Niagara to Afton: Environmental Justice in the United States
Refining a Movement: Environmental Justice Takes Center Stage in Detroit by Sandra Svoboda, August 17, 2011 Metro Times
Our Kitchen Table, focused on creating health equity through healthy food access in West Michigan

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