On a sunny afternoon in Little Village, the Marshall Square Resource Network Health Committee sat around a conference room table at the Esperanza Health Center discussing an empty lot by Hammond Elementary School. There were suggestions for a food garden, a space for zumba and yoga classes, the potential for a zen garden- anything to get students outside.
The childhood obesity rate in Little Village is a staggering 32 percent, almost double the national average. The roots of the problem are varied and compounded; poor eating habits, made worse by the high prices of healthy foods, coupled with a lack of safe outdoor spaces, set children up for a lifetime of health problems. With the help of United Way and their Neighborhood Network Initiative, Little Village is working to change the story.
The Marshall Square Resource Network was formed to connect organizations and partners around Little Village to “build the capacity of member agencies, create integrated solutions and organize for community change.” With the financial backing of United Way, MSRN is able to leverage the knowledge of their members, their community connections and their various resources to address a variety of issues, including childhood obesity, the neighborhood’s “bold goal.”
The members of the Health Committee, led by Sofia Mendez of Latinos Progresando, the lead agency for the Neighborhood Network, went around the room, exploring alternative ways to think about weight loss, adjusting their focus from numbers on a scale to healthy lifestyle choices. Instead of monitoring weight loss and counting pounds, committee members suggested asking how often residents go outside, take walks or are active throughout the day. They also discussed the creation of running and walking clubs at local schools, a place where students could not only exercise, but gain teamwork skills, achieve a goal and create bonds in the community in a safe environment. Another perk? Parents could lead the clubs, giving them leadership experience and providing them with training in trauma informed care- an approach that stresses the connections between behavioral issues and socioemotional issues, and provides children support from a place of patience and kindness. For the representatives at the table, harking from the Lincoln Park Zoo, Esperanza Health Centers, Latinos Progresando and other community organizations, it is necessary to work from an understanding that good health includes more than just the physical- emotional, psychological and mental wellness all are necessary to lead a healthy life.
But the issues in Little Village encompass more than just health; MSRN is dedicated to solving a range of problems, from safety to trauma support to education. The Peace Committee, composed of coalition members such as Sarah’s Inn, Taller de Jose and La Familia Unida, among others, formed to combat community and domestic violence and works to “reduce domestic violence in the Marshall Square Neighborhood, reduce the effects of domestic violence, cooperatively create procedures and strategies to serve victims and their children and to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.” The committee sees domestic violence as a community problem, not an individual problem, and believes it is the job of the community to reach out to victims and safely extend support rather than wait for them to seek help. They recognize that a proactive and coordinated response to domestic violence is itself a form of crime prevention, and is a necessary step in ending the cycle of trauma.
The Marshall Square Resource Network is also working towards creating a safer and more prosperous community for all residents. OPEN Center for the Arts, located around the corner from Latinos Progresando, is a member of MSRN and an artistic hub for Marshall Square. Their mission is to “provide a space where all artists can come together to educate, showcase, refine, and develop their talents as well as support entrepreneurship opportunities in the arts while connecting their growth to the community.” In partnership with Latinos Progresando and in line with the mission of MSRN, the are also home to Teatro Americano, a theater company for local teens to write and perform stories about their own lives, as well as “inspire the people of [the] community to create art, enjoy art, and question and think critically about art.” In a neighborhood where 85 percent of the residents are Hispanic, the art featured at OPEN often reflects their Mexican heritage, celebrating the history and culture of the community. OPEN, and programs like Teatro Americano not only provide an opportunity to process the events taking place in the community through art, but also provide a space for safe, fun and engaging entertainment that improves the quality of life in Little Village.
For Mendez, these programs are part of her vision of success for MSRN. For the community, she envisions Marshall Square as a place where people feel safe, where schools perform at a high level and people are excited to visit, attracted by local cuisine, art and culture. For the organization, she hopes to strengthen and sustain the Marshall Square Resource Network, retaining talent, building on partnerships, increasing funding and growing to include any and all organizations dedicated to creating a better Little Village.
Blog submitted by: Elana Ross, Intern, Public Policy and Advocacy