Block by Block
This fresh approach, informed by frank discussions about systemic racism and health, has yielded remarkable dividends:
- Taxes for public health: At a time when raising taxes can be political kryptonite, the city has galvanized voters—70 percent of them in 2013—to support the funding of health initiatives via the Health Levy. Structured as a property tax, it was established to fund hospital and public health activities and generates more than $50 million annually. Some of the money is used to provide care for the city’s low-income population. COMBAT, or the Community Backed Anti-Drug Tax, draws more than $19 million annually to fight drug use and drug-related crimes.
- Education: In early 2012, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described in stark terms the challenges facing the Kansas City District School system. This ignited a multiyear effort to transform the city’s schools to create a safe learning environment where students can thrive. Five local health care systems are participating in the national Talk, Read, Play Program, which provides new parents with materials and a book to start their children out on the right foot as they leave the hospital. Other initiatives, such as Success Court, work to redirect at-risk 7th- and 8th-graders in an effort to reduce truancy and dropout rates. And when research indicated that two of every three students in Kansas City Public Schools had endured at least two significant childhood traumas in their lives, The Trauma Informed Schools Program began training teachers and staff to identify traumatized students so that they can receive help—even beyond the schoolyard.
- Food access: In urban pockets across the United States, “food deserts” that rely on corner-store shopping are all too often the norm. Kansas City is no exception. The Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition—a broad alliance of people from government, business and nonprofits—works to bring fresh, sustainable food options to nine underserved counties in the metro area. The Coalition also successfully advocated zoning changes to encourage urban agriculture in formerly vacant lots. Truman Medical Center, in collaboration with the Hospital Hill Economic Development Corp., was able to secure a transfer of land from the city. That plot will house an $11.5 million, 35,000-square-feet grocery store.
Kansas City has taken a long view, realizing that even small steps forward will change lives and move the community toward the end goal. Today, instead of staggered progress taking place in institutional silos, agencies that may have once fought each other for limited resources speak the language of teamwork with remarkable fluency.
“We don’t just talk collaboration,” says Mayor James. “We do collaboration.”
If there was a founding document of Kansas City’s turnabout, it would be the Community Health Improvement Plan, passed by resolution in 2001 in the wake of the striking life-expectancy gap numbers. This plan framed a movement that would ultimately lead to systemic changes. The data-driven revelation also provided a model for the city’s focus on measuring outcomes and sharing these results at every step of the way. This approach is embedded in how they work—from quarterly Citizen Satisfaction Surveys to KC Stat, which helps measure progress on the city council’s strategic priorities based on both qualitative and quantitative data and citizen input.
Communities Creating Opportunity (CCO) is one of the driving forces in moving the plan from ambitious concept to on-the-ground reality. Though founded in 1977 in response to unfair housing, the CCO today has a larger footprint. In the 1980s, its mission expanded to encompass a wide range of issues, including health access and violence prevention. The CCO and the health department began sharing office space in 2012.
“Individuals who are close to the pain or close to the challenges can be agents of their own liberation,” says Seft Hunter, chief operating officer of CCO. “That speaks to the idea that members of the community have agency. They have a role to play in this process.”
CCO has about 20 trained organizers–like Donna Young. It takes time to build relationships and cultivate trust, so they work long hours during the week and typically clock in on weekends.
The meeting to which Young was driving Beatrice Lee was a stop in the mayor’s “listening tour.” The topic: how to allocate some available revenue. Lee, with Young's help, had come prepared. Huddled with other community members in a work group, she shared her ideas for how to best spend the new revenue: Forget property tax relief, she said, and focus on improving parks and finding places for youth to work and play. Her ideas drew nods of agreement and she felt respected. Her voice had been heard.
“It’s heart work,” Young says. “It’s soul work.”