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Professor receives grant to foster health equity among Chicago youth

BY Ryann Monahan

A new grant will help reduce disparities in healthcare through a unique new training program led by Ruby Mendenhall (GNDP), Associate Professor in Sociology, African American Studies, Urban and Regional Planning, and Social Work and Associate Dean for Diversity and Democratization of Health Innovation at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine. The programming will create a culture of innovation that centers around the health and wellness of mostly Black and Latinx high school students and young adults living in Chicago. View a brief video here.

Mendenhall received a MacArthur Foundation grant that will help reduce disparities in healthcare through a unique new training program, wellness tools, and policy clinic.
Mendenhall received a MacArthur Foundation grant that will help reduce disparities in healthcare through a unique new training program, wellness tools, and policy clinic.

With the $500,000 MacArthur Foundation grant, Mendenhall and her research team will create programming and wellness tools, including art, to foster healing from racial trauma such as police killings, gun violence, and higher rates of COVID-19 deaths.

“It is our hope to have this culture of innovation so embedded in the young people’s lives that it permeates all areas of their health and well-being and fosters community healing, especially in neighborhoods with high levels of violence,” said Mendenhall.

Mendenhall’s project addresses the harmful effects of structural racism which creates limits to Black and Latinx students’ access to careers in medicine, nursing, behavioral sciences, and other health-related fields. “Due to structural racism in the U.S., communities of color often have higher rates of multigenerational poverty, unemployment, educational challenges,residential segregation, criminalization, precarious and toxic housing, incarceration and health disparities,” Mendenhall explained.

The programming will help prevent racial trauma by developing a holistic and trauma-informed ecosystem for youth that supports a third reconstruction (social justice policies and implementation) and Chicago Renaissance (intense artistic and intellectual activities). The initiative will work primarily with Black and Latinx youth to co-create a Community Health Worker training program that includes designing innovative low-and high-tech wellness toolkits in partnership with the University of Illinois Siebel Center for Design.

The program will extend its reach through collaboration with a broad range of 50 community-based, government, and university organizations, including faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University. The program will also reach out to community colleges and other minority-serving institutions. “We are going to co-create the training with 50 individuals, but the long-term goal is to train as many young people as possible in and around Chicago, the state and globally. Our community health workers will be trained to innovate in ways (e.g., socially, economically, psychologically, technologically, etc.) that foster health equity,” said Mendenhall.

The grant also will fund a non-partisan policy clinic with the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA) to teach students about policy development and implementation, and to train the next generation of Black and Latino policymakers.

In addition, IGPA and Mendenhall will extend their current project, “Citizen Scientist Journaling on COVID-19: Documenting the Impact of the Pandemic and Offering Solutions.” The citizen (community) scientist project captured the lived experiences of individuals across the state through journaling during the pandemic. The Citizen Scientist and Community Health Worker programs will also serve as a pathway program to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Chicago in all disciplines.

Mendenhall is also working to develop what she refers to as Communiversity Science™. Communiversity Science™ involves many departments in a university working together in specific communities to bring unprecedented resources to solve problems together. It also involves working with other universities and agencies to accomplish similar goals.  More information on Communiversity Science™. can be found in a lightning talk featuring Mendenhall here.

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