Creating Equitable Health Outcomes for All — Part 1

Creating Equitable Health Outcomes for All — Part 1

There’s no denying that every system in the United States is inequitable. Health disparities in BIPOC communities are highly prevalent and have become even more apparent during the pandemic. The IWBI Health Equity Advisory is leading a multi-faceted strategy tapping into the expertise of the WELL community to identify and scale strategies that address global health inequities in buildings, businesses, and communities. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, health equity means increasing opportunities for everyone to live the healthiest life possible, no matter who we are, where we live, or how much money we make. Here are four things that must be done to create equitable, affordable, and accessible health outcomes for all.

Fair access to COVID-19 resources, vaccination, and care

COVID-19 has highlighted the systemic disparity and disproportionate access to healthcare that under-represented communities endure. As of 2018, BIPOC were more likely than whites to forgo needed medical care because of the cost.

“What’s most important is that trusted community sources step up and activate to increase education and access to COVID-19 vaccinations within BIPOC communities,” says Kimberly Lewis, Co-Chair of the IWBI Health Equity Advisory, former Senior Vice President for market transformation and development in North America at the U.S. Green Building Council, and the 2011 receiver of the prestigious White House Champion of Change for Clean Energy award.

She notes that faith communities play a vital role in debunking COVID-19 myths. “I’m proud to see churches as vaccination sites and also providing food and support during the pandemic.”

Clean, potable water for all

The lack of access to potable water contributes gravely to health disparities within the United States. Lewis recently joined the board of Elevate Energy which launched programs in five Midwestern cities to address equitable access to affordable and clean water in BIPOC and aging communities. Over 42 percent of non-elderly individuals living in the States are BIPOC.

Lewis summarizes the research Elevate Energy recently published in their report, Water Affordability in Northeastern Illinois: Addressing Water Equity in a Time of Rising Costs — “Elevate has found that energy and water burdens affect frontline communities the most,” Lewis says. “The main challenges are an aging water infrastructure in need of replacement, sharp decline in federal support, population changes as immigrant communities shift out of insecurity, and rising input costs.”

She notes that there’s a disproportionate burden of higher bills in non-white majority and senior population areas. To resolve this ongoing crisis, Lewis suggests that health and human services assistance programs must “address resident sensitivity to the implications of water shut-offs in health, dignity, and respect.” From her work with Elevate Energy, she believes that a long-term strategy should be developed by bringing utilities, water advocates, and focus groups together to analyze challenges, research the impact of water debt, and identify where the burden continues to exist.

City planning should focus on community health

To create equitable health outcomes for all, cities and buildings must address inequities in the system that hinder sustainable communities. “Since the 19th century, and exacerbated by redlining in the 20th century, cities systematically under-invested in BIPOC communities, with few trees, and paved over green spaces with impervious tracts of low-cost asphalt,” Lewis says. “That leads to flooding, air pollution, and extreme summer heat.”

As city surfaces are dark (such as rooftops and parking lots), cities can be at least 10 degrees hotter in the summer, especially in low-income and minority neighborhoods. This leads to extreme heat, which is the leading cause of weather-related death in the States—more than natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes. “Disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable community members, heat extremes are particularly deadly in densely populated urban centers,” Lewis says.

“These patterns of urban inequality imposed on the most vulnerable populations damage the health and upward mobility of a large part of society. Our pathway forward towards removing these systemic barriers and creating restorative communities can be solutioned by addressing this environmental injustice,” Lewis says.

Lewis points to individuals and organizations leading efforts to reduce and eliminate these systemic inequities, like the work David Bowers is doing at Enterprise Community Partners and the Smart Surfaces Coalition. Through David’s work at Enterprise, he has spearheaded various initiatives such as: GreenPath (initiative preserving affordable and green housing near transit nodes) and D.C. Green Communities Initiative (seeking to institutionalize sustainable and equitable practices).

Prioritize Green Building

After leaving USGBC, Lewis founded Havenz Network, launching her own consulting company where she will continue her work in equity, sustainability, and the healthy building movement. As discussed in her self-published article, Revival of Green, Lewis states that the broader sustainability and healthy building movement can support a just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive future by reforming and reviving the entire industry governance structure. Lewis has found that although the sustainability industry was founded to be an ‘epicenter of healing and building bridges for community’ it needs to repair what’s broken. “We can design and operate better by re-forming the leaders of the sustainability industry,” she says.

Performative alliances aren’t making a difference in green building—or anywhere else. “Structural and institutional racism has resulted in a deep lack of diversity amongst sustainability professionals that is reflected across the industry,” Lewis says. Instead, she hopes leaders from the communities being served will lead sustainable strategies.

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