Skip to Content

Roots of Change



Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter is best known for cofounding The Roots, a Grammy Award winning hip hop group currently serving as the house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” But the politically-minded Trotter also is passionate about grassroots efforts that help educate and empower people in vulnerable communities.
Alongside sociologist Dr. Janice Johnson Dias, Trotter formed the GrassROOTS Community Foundation, which works with community based organizations to provide services to disadvantaged women and girls. The Inside Track asked Johnson Dias, a Leader, to share some thoughts about the work GrassROOTS is leading in communities nationwide.
The GrassROOTS Community Foundation (GrassROOTS) is primarily focused on creating a world in which young girls grow up to be healthy women. How does reversing childhood obesity fit in to that effort?
We are committed to combating and reversing childhood obesity because obesity is reducing the life chances of low-income women and girls. GrassROOTS makes sustainable change in the lives of impoverished women and girls by providing research support and financial resources to community based organizations that work to improve their physical, mental and sexual health. GrassROOTS uses data gathered from programs to advance local and national health policies and programs. Over half of the 37 million Americans living in poverty are female; they are likely to be sick due to limited access to health-related resources. The problem is particularly pronounced among black and brown females. Non-Hispanic Black and Mexican-American women were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic White women (50.1 and 41.6 versus 32.7 percent, respectively). Obesity increases the risk for adult breast cancer and… is associated with depression and anxiety.  Reducing obesity saves lives. 
Why is the foundation looking at helping girls specifically? What sort of unique issues do girls and young women face when it comes to the obesity epidemic?
We view our women as the foundation of our society. We believe an investment in our women and girls is an investment in the future. We recognize that obesity and physical inactivity are major health crises that lower individuals’ quality of life and reduce their human development. This is particularly true for black and brown women and girls whose experiences are largely excluded from major U.S. health research studies and as a consequence, U.S. health policies. Impoverished women and girls of all races are at the highest risk for poor physical, mental and sexual health with obesity being one of the central gateways to poor mental and sexual health.
One of the things the foundation does is award grants to grassroots organizations working on health and wellness in disadvantaged communities. What sort of projects and organizations have you supported?
At GrassROOTS we support community based organizations that provide holistic and multi-systems programming to impoverished women and girls. In February 2011, we awarded our first “Let’s Move It” grant to Carson Valley Children’s Aid Frankford Neighborhood Center program at the Harding Middle School in Philadelphia. This GrassROOTS funded program, “Creating Healthy Informative Caring Knowledgeable Selves” (CHICKS) provides nutrition, self-esteem, body image, aquatics and Zumba classes in an afterschool setting to girls and their mothers. CHICKS participants live in zip code 19124 in Philadelphia; over a third of the children in this zip code live in poverty. In addition, HIV rates among young men and women under 30 years old from this neighborhood far exceed the national average. Moreover, high school graduation rates for this area have not exceeded 80 percent over the last decade. 
In addition to the financial award, GrassROOTS provides the CHICKS program a team of GrassROOTS consultants to help define, support, and evaluate the program. We are currently seeking a community policy consultant to work with our program and local food outlets and community organizations such that we can begin to more explicitly address the structural issues that impede the health and well-being of the residents in the neighborhood. 
We also have piloted a program in Newark, N.J. and the surrounding communities of East Orange and Orange. GrassROOTS has adopted the
housing development Georgia King Village, and in collaboration with St. Matthew AME church and local partners, have developed the Health Education And Literacy program (HEAL). HEAL focuses on health education/literacy, physical activity and parent and child engagement. The program offers yoga for parents and children and hands-on cooking for families. The yoga class aims to support self-development, enhance physical and mental development including flexibility, increased lung capacity, balance, focus and self-awareness and to provide mothers and children with confidence which comes from being grounded in a sense of history and self. The literacy portion of the program aims to enhance and support empowerment, develop critical thinking, and cognitive and intellectual skills among children. HEAL fosters stress management within individuals and families and offer strategies for healthy eating and exercise. We expect to expand the program to include senior citizens. The inclusion of women and girls of all ages would allow us to meet promote the message of health across the life course.
We have also developed a strategic partnership with Bennett College for Women and Bennett Middle College in Greensboro, N.C. As one of two historically black colleges and universities, this partnership allows GrassROOTS to work with one of the most vulnerable and at risk populations for being obese. In spring 2012, we will provide funding for a high school girl and her family to receive health education, financial literacy and race training for a 5K race. With assistance from a coaching team, participants will receive the educational information and practical experience they need to complete the race safely and effectively. The program will provide educational clinics on running-related topics, such as choosing the correct shoes, stretching and injury prevention, and nutrition. The event will conclude with a Let’s Move It benefit concert. Proceeds from the concert will become funding for the GrassROOTS grants program. Based on responses to the request for proposals, we’ll award a grant to a community based organization to develop a year-long health program for young girls.
When you work with folks on the ground in these communities, what do they tell you? What sort of resources do they need to really tackle obesity in their neighborhoods (besides money, of course)?
We tell community members that unlike other philanthropic organizations we are not here to do charity but to make an investment in the community such that they can make health a priority.  
Our communities need better access to healthy foods, particularly supermarkets. Our programs operate in low income communities that have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Our Philadelphia and Newark program are in food deserts… this forces many in the area to travel farther to a supermarket, shop at a more expensive corner stores, or eat fast food.
Our communities need reformed educational systems that integrate health education and literacy into the curricula. In addition, it is crucial that educational program and policymakers understand that financial literacy is directly tied to youth’s health outcomes and economic well-being.  
Program and policymakers need to better engage parents and community members into their school programming. After school programs often exclude parents and families. But for long-term sustainable change we need to engage youth, their families and their community. 
Finally, there is a greater need for multi-system evidence-based programs that include parents and community residents. It takes a healthy village to create a world where all girls grow up to be healthy women. 
A lot of the funding for the grants comes from the Let’s Move It! concert series. I know you recently held a show in Philadelphia. Are any more concerts planned?
Yes, we are currently finalizing the details with Madison Square Garden and the WNBA’s New York Liberty to hold a fundraising event in April for HEAL. We want to offer the program free to all participants, so we want to raise funds to support this program.