South Los Angeles is one of the most disenfranchised, underserved communities in the nation. With over 1 million people lacking convenient access to healthy food or open space for physical activity, it is not surprising that residents disproportionately suffer from high rates of overweight and obesity (more than

70 percent of adults) and other chronic diseases. A traditional approach to the health disparities here might be to impose sweeping changes on systems already in place, but when we asked the people who make up this community what they needed in order to lead a healthy lifestyle, the answers were much closer to home.

This last summer, “The BUILD Health Challenge,” a prestigious national program, announced the Youth-Driven Healthy South Los Angeles partnership as one of the inaugural grant awardees. The South LA partnership will work together in developing a comprehensive community-based action plan for South Central and Central Alameda neighborhoods of South Los Angeles. The goal of the plan is to identify which key community factors that promote healthy living, also referred to as “upstream solutions,” could be implemented to improve the health of these two communities. The partnership includes National Health Foundation (NHF) along with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and California Hospital Medical Center.

YES (Youth Envisioned Streets) for a Healthier South LA. Photo: National Health Foundation

YES (Youth Envisioned Streets) for a Healthier South LA. Photo: National Health Foundation

This program incorporates lessons learned from NHF’s transformative work with Jefferson High School and the “Health Academy,” where youth are engaged in participatory action research to bring about community change supporting healthier lifestyles. Essential to the project’s success, youth are engaged in understanding and tackling complex socio-health problems in the community. Similar to other NHF programs, the Youth-Driven Healthy South LA program trains youth within the community as Community Health Liaisons. These youth participate in community discussions and gather input on what changes can be made to improve social determinants of health, which often include changes in economic landscapes, regulation and public policy, the built environment, transportation and infrastructure, educational attainment, public safety and housing.

In the months since the program’s announcement, NHF staff and the community’s youth pored over available data and research to gain a comprehensive understanding of the communities’ health-related issues, current assets and opportunities ripe for adoption and expansion. In the coming months, NHF and its youth ambassadors will be soliciting input from the community on ideas for improving access to healthy food and safe, outdoor space.

Levering the ongoing work of the BUILD project, NHF obtained funding from the Los Angeles City Mayor’s office for “YES (Youth Envisioned Streets) for a Healthier South LA,” a youth-driven event on Central Avenue (in the same target neighborhood) that demonstrated how public space can be reimagined as safe, vibrant and active for all members of the community. YES is a collaboration between NHF, A Place Called Home, Coalition for Responsible Community Development, Los Angeles Walks, and Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.

YES (Youth Envisioned Streets) for a Healthier South LA. Photo: National Health Foundation

YES (Youth Envisioned Streets) for a Healthier South LA. Photo: National Health Foundation

Focusing on the area surrounding Central Avenue in South Los Angeles, the YES team, which was driven by youth and their ideas, reviewed community data and created a “reimagine the streets” survey that was administered to community members at in-person meetings and community events. The results were unveiled at the recent “GreatStreets” event on Central Avenue. For one day, Central Avenue between East 33rd Street and East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was transformed into the very space that the community envisioned.

Three potential configurations were demonstrated:

  1. The street with a protected bike lane,
  2. The street with extended sidewalks through parklet activation, and
  3. The street with an unprotected bike lane.

The street was flanked with new way-finding signage indicating the distance to local points of interest and community landmarks, and there were places for families to play, learn about gardening and connect with the active health resources within their community.

The community’s response to this event was overwhelmingly positive with a chorus of “This is just what we wanted” and “We can finally have some family fun in our neighborhood” and “Central Avenue is so much safer with space for pedestrians and safe bike lanes.” During the event, 280 community surveys were collected indicating which street configuration neighbors preferred: 54 percent preferred protected bike lanes; 28 percent preferred unprotected bike lanes; and 18 percent preferred extended sidewalks. But not only was this event an exciting time for the community, it greatly informed the tangent work of NHF’s Youth-Driven Healthy South LA project, which continues through this summer.

By engaging youth to be a part of the decision-making in both “Youth-Driven Healthy South LA” and “YES,” they have become the agents of change and have learned how to successfully engage their parents, teachers and other community stakeholders. These projects democratize the planning process and create a participatory environment marked by innovation, creativity and cultural inclusion. By bringing together empowered youth, their communities and organizations seeking to deliver active health options, we are able to begin bridging gaps in health disparities that previously have not be crossed.

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About the Author

Kelly Bruno is President and CEO of National Health Foundation in Los Angeles, California. There she leads a team that is addressing the social determinants of health in Southern California communities and bridging gaps in some of the nation’s deepest health disparities.