This week the Inside Track continues a series of interviews with members of the Strategic Advisory Committee of Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association, exploring their various contributions to the fight against childhood obesity.
Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Mónica Córdova found her voice in her teens as an advocate for herself and other young people.
“I didn’t really fit in anywhere,” recalled Córdova , program director of the Healthy Communities Initiative at the Funders’ Collaborative for Youth Organizing (FCYO). “I wasn’t athletic, I didn’t feel like I super excelled at academics.” But that changed when she joined her neighborhood association’s youth group.
At 15, she was encouraged to run for the association’s board, which was then dominated by white men, and won the election. “At age 16 I was debating liquor permits or zoning ordinances,” she said. “It was a really powerful experience to be able to be at the table…and I took that opportunity to advocate for young people being in these spaces.”
After completing her education, she stayed in her native New Mexico, where her family has longtime roots, and started her career at a local community center. She moved from there to the Southwest Organizing Project, an organization founded by young activists of color, and finally to FCYO.
One key aspect of communities she has been interested in ever since her own childhood is healthy food. “I really had a passion around a lot of the food and health justice work,” she said. “It really took me back to my roots.” She recalled that her grandmother was a longtime cafeteria worker, and that her grandfather always had a vegetable garden—a tradition, she noted, that she and her own children continue with enthusiasm. Her 4-year-old son’s preschool class is growing seedlings for their classroom garden: “All the other kids want to grow roses and flowers, but he wants to grow watermelons and tomatoes!”
Getting kids actively involved in their own healthy choices is what the work of FCYO is all about. Through partnerships and fellowships, the Healthy Communities Initiative promotes student- and parent-driven health activism focused on minority communities throughout the country. The organizations drive campaigns on a variety of issues including improving school meals; providing safer spaces for recess and play; and looking at other root causes of childhood obesity. Young people meet with school officials in cities such as Denver, where FCYO helped local students and parents share their priorities for the city’s Healthy People 2020 initiative.
This kind of activism dispels the stereotype that kids have to be coaxed into making healthy choices. “We develop strong messages from the voices of youth, giving space and opportunities for youth of color to talk about what health looks like in their communities and what the root causes of childhood obesity are in their communities—and also the solutions,” Córdova said. “They have those solutions for their schools, their neighborhoods, their families.”
The roadblocks young people face, Córdova noted, come in fact when they are “not at the decision table…things are imposed on them.” That comes along with the pervasive fast-food and junk-food marketing kids are bombarded with each day.
“Given the option and the opportunity, young people are not only going to make healthy choices but are going to champion them,” Córdova said. The job of FCYO and its partners is to create the space for them to do just that.