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When place matters: Race and community wellness in Port Towns

October 21, 2011

by Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, PhD, Visitin Scholar,
       Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University

Does where you live determine how long you live, or how you die?

This was one of the questions that formed the backdrop of the tour of Port Towns organized by The Community Foundation for the Northern Capital Region on October 12 2011. The Port Towns comprise of four towns in Prince George’s County, Maryland: Bladensburg, Colmar Manor, Cottage City and Edmonston. Brought together by the need to develop sustainable solutions to the challenges facing their communities, the Port Towns Community Development Corporation firmly believes that place can and does matter in determining health outcomes.

Prince George’s County is the most diverse in Maryland with 80% of the population belonging to minority groups. Despite its rich diversity, the 2010 census put 8% of households as living below the poverty line. The average poverty level for Prince George’s County however masks the deep inequalities that exist within the four Port Towns. Cottage city, for example, has more than 21% of its population living below the poverty line. Bladensburg has a poverty level of 12%, while Colmar Manor and Edmonston have poverty levels of 2% and 9% respectively. With the exception of Colmar Manor, the Port Towns communities are amongst the poorest in Prince George’s County and Maryland state.

These statistics have a bearing on health and wellness in the community. In a panel discussion, Adam Ortiz, the Acting Director of Community Relations for Prince George’s County explained that although incidences of diseases like cancer are lower amongst minorities, their mortality levels are higher. Prince George’s County is also one of the most obese jurisdictions in Maryland and has high rates of asthma, HIV, and infant mortality. The problem is compounded by the inaccessibility to health services. With a population of over 800,000, between 80,000 and 150,000 people are uninsured and an additional 150,000 to 200,000 are underinsured in Prince George’s County. Under these conditions, saving lives through early diagnosis and preventative treatment is a significant challenge.

According to Natalie S. Burke, President and Co-Founder of CommonHealth Action, contrary to popular perceptions, only 10% of our health is influenced by our genes, and 40% by our behaviour. Our social, economic, and physical environments determine 50% of our health outcomes. Factors like community cohesion, stress, communal amenities like parks, sidewalks, health services, technology, business and public investment, make all the difference in enhancing health and wellness in an area. And this has been a significant challenge for the Port Towns authorities. When our tour guide Ms. Sadara Barrow, ED for the Port Towns CDC, moved into the area in 1983, there were no shops or businesses in her neighborhood. People had to travel miles to get groceries, banking services, and other basic amenities.

Few people contemplate what it means to have no grocery store close to where they live. Businesses provide the households they serve much needed employment and services. They invest in infrastructure and pay taxes which go into improving the community. Businesses signal confidence in a neighborhood. Their investments “crowd in” other investors, attracting other businesses that contribute to building the community.

Yet while businesses are important, it is the commitment of ordinary people to their community that struck me most throughout the tour. It is the inspiring story of students’ demands for a better education that led to the transformation of Bladensburg High School, into the premier learning environment that it is now. It is the vision of the founders of the Anacostia Watershed Society to reclaim the Anacostia river and turn it into a recreational, clean and sustainable asset for present and future generations. It is the dream of the volunteers of ECO City Farms to provide fresh organic fruit and vegetables to Port Towns’ grocers and residents all year round. It is the commitment of Port Towns’ leaders, businesses and large corporations like Kaiser Permanente that is transforming the community one day at a time.

Yes, place does matter, and what makes the difference is when people believe in it too.


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