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Fighting Prejudice and Reducing Obesity


Our friends at Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) support people who are working to build a culture of active living and healthy eating in the communities that are highest at risk for obesity. HKHC leaders work on a community level to create policy or environmental change that will create healthy environments.

In the guest piece below, HKHC shares the story of Ruth Perot, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement who is now working to improve health outcomes in the nation’s capital. In the piece, HKHC shares Perot’s strategy for achieving meaningful and lasting success.

Having known much prejudice and racism in her life, Ruth Perot could have easily turned into a cynic. Instead, she leveraged her experiences to better the lives of others.

Ruth remembers being called the N-word for the first time at age 5. Her mother told her it was the result of a limited vocabulary. Limited vocabulary, she could forgive. Then Ruth went to high school in Ohio and her high school prom was canceled because the principal was afraid that whites and blacks would dance together. The swimming pool was closed so whites and blacks wouldn’t swim together. And when she was named valedictorian of her class, it was decided that for the first time in the school’s history the valedictorian would not give the speech but rather it would be shared by members of the honor society. Ignorance could not explain away these actions. Clearly, said Ruth, lack of fairness was linked with race and color. The principal’s power was being exercised to disadvantage her and other African-American students. That was racism and it was hard to accept.

Ruth traveled to Germany for a year during college. Her travel increased her awareness of racism, but not because of what she saw there. “I didn’t feel the impact of race in Germany in the same way I did when I returned in 1961. Things were really heating up then in the U.S.”

So she began tutoring students in Farmville, Va., where public schools had been closed for four years because Virginians refused to integrate. She became a full-time activist for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Cleveland, where she helped build an active CORE chapter, organized the community to address discrimination and was arrested for a sit-in at the board of education during a protest of segregated schools.

Today Ruth is the co-founder, executive director and chief executive officer of Summit Health Institute for Research and Education, Inc. (SHIRE). Since its inception, SHIRE has worked toward the dual purpose of achieving health parity for communities of color and aiding vulnerable populations in attaining optimal health. Ruth also is the project director for Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities in Washington, D.C.

As project director, Ruth provides overall guidance and serves as a sounding board. “Gratefully, we have such a capable young woman named Jenne’ Johns to move things day to day,” she says.

Key Lessons on Community Change
Ruth draws from a deep well of wisdom in providing such guidance. Lessons learned during the Civil Rights movement translate to her work today. “I learned about the importance of organizing, the importance of engaging people in issues that are important to them. That people united can accomplish great things,” she says. And she learned what it takes to make community change.

First, she says, you need a catalytic event. “You have to have someone or something that focuses attention on a need for change and something that touches a lot of people’s lives,” she says. “That event in our community is the epidemic of childhood obesity and its consequences.”

HKHC works in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where more than half of kids are overweight and obese. These also are the communities with high unemployment and the highest crime rates, which often limit residents' use of the parks and other available green space.

Second, Ruth continues: “You need an organized, coordinating presence that brings people together and helps move the agenda forward. Volunteers alone can’t make things happen, although they’re important. Even though we were paid the modest sum of $50 per week in the Civil Rights movement, we had staff that planned, engaged, coordinated and provided opportunities for participation.”

For HKHC, that organizing presence is SHIRE, with Ruth at the helm and a strong partnership working to advance four policies: instituting the Federal After School Supper Program; creating a saturation index of unhealthy food and beverage vendors; implementing and enforcing policies that will create a Park Keepers workforce; and creating policies to reimburse community-based fitness and healthy living programs by insurers.

Finally, leaders are needed who can give voice to the problem and the solutions. “We were blessed in the Civil Rights movement to have a number of those leaders,” Ruth says. “Today, we are excited by the new energy flowing from the White House and resonating at the local level. We are encouraged by local emerging legislative efforts and the development of a solid framework for policies. Slowly but surely, obesity is becoming a priority issue in our community. Our Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities partnership stands ready to work alongside our local leaders to advance a healthy living agenda. We are also totally committed to educate, engage and empower a cadre of community residents who can assume leadership roles to advance and sustain these efforts. Community leaders are essential.”

There are a few more things necessary for change. These are what Ruth calls the three E’s: enlightenment, environment and engagement. Ruth defines enlightenment as education and awareness building and yet, she says, it’s more than that. “You’ve got to turn the light bulb on. Not only know the statistics, but what does it mean in terms of what (people) care about. It goes beyond sending out fact sheets, it means an internalization of the information so that people want to be involved,” she says.

For example, she was recently at a meeting where a woman asked why she cares about DC’s work on the After School Supper Program. “She said she never had a hot supper waiting for her at home and had to wait for kids to give her leftovers for breakfast,” Ruth says. “She was tearful in telling that. Whatever we’re promoting and advocating needs to have resonance with people who have to work it through. If they feel it’s important then it gives them more energy to work for it. That is engagement. ”

In addition to enlightenment, Ruth said it's important to know what power levers can be pressed, to know the system and the environment of the community while also using engagement strategies to get people involved.

“My experience over the years tells me these are the essential requirements to make major changes,” Ruth says. “To the extent to which you have them, your chances to make change are much greater.”

It's Not About Trickle Down
Clearly, Ruth cares about making deep-seeded changes to strengthen quality of life for all people. She prefers to work on policy and systems change because she knows that will have the biggest impact on the most people. And she is always keeping her eye on the need to address inequity.

“I would like to see a more conscious awareness that while some folks have a cold, others have pneumonia,” she said. “I’m talking, for example, about African Americans, Latinos, American Indians and those affected by poverty.” Ruth warns that we must look carefully at statistics which, as in the case of DC, may show improvement but not adequately reflect reality.

“We’re pretty sure the improvement in D.C. obesity rates comes almost totally from the white community,” Ruth explains. “Because that’s the community which has been reached by national efforts and campaigns. Our goal is that if you really want to change statistics, go where the problem is most severe.”

She knows addressing inequity takes longer, but points out the unfairness of only improving one group while those who are affected most profoundly end up even worse off. “It’s very important to target our efforts,” Ruth says. “Trickle down doesn’t work. We know that. If we really want to see change across the board, and you recognize the disparities are there, we have to make a special effort to reach those with the greatest need.”

Looking Forward
Long term, Ruth hopes to move some of the HKHC policies they’re working on into an institutional framework. “I want to see something like the park keepers workforce become a part of the City Parks and Recreation Department as a permanent policy or as a legitimate public works opportunity,” she says.

Even more than that, Ruth hopes that the community engagement component of their HKHC initiative becomes an empowering experience for residents. “I hope they’ll feel what I felt in the Civil Rights movement. That feeling of ‘I have made a difference.’ That feeling is something that stays with you for the rest of your life,” she says.