Building Greater Health Equity on the First Coast

By Eric K. Mann
President and CEO, YMCA of Florida’s First Coast

In less than three months, our nation experienced two critical events that will forever change the trajectory of modern history.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the horrific, high-profile killings of black men and women in the last several weeks, have underscored the systemic racism and seismic health disparities that persist within our communities. The pandemic, which according to the CDC, has killed a disproportionate number of black men and women and put many more out of work, highlights the pronounced gaps in access to quality health care, education and economic opportunities.

Since the 1960s, urban planning mechanisms and policies have helped perpetuate a cycle of oppression by ensuring Jacksonville’s poorest communities lacked access to well-paying jobs, affordable housing, quality schools and accessible health and wellness resources. This cycle continues today. In communities across the United States, including here on the First Coast, it is easy to distinguish between areas that have benefitted from high levels of public and private investment over the years and those that have not. According to the Florida Department of Health and a 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment from UF Health Jacksonville, residents living in Health Zone 1 (the urban core and surrounding areas) experience high – if not the highest – levels of crime, infant-mortality, chronic disease, obesity and poverty. Over 76% of residents in Health Zone 1 are black.

While there are many historical and contextual factors that contribute to systemic oppression, the First Coast YMCA is keenly focused on ensuring health equity across every neighborhood. We want every resident to live their healthiest life regardless of what they look like, where they’re from and how much money they make.

But, the Y cannot do it alone. Community collaboration is critical to bridging the gap in health disparities that exist between zip codes. This is why the First Coast YMCA has partnered with our medical community to integrate medical and community health into a total wellness resource. For example, the Y has partnered with Baptist Health, Brooks Rehabilitation, Flagler Health+, Florida Blue and UF Health to make a wide spectrum of services accessible to the surrounding community. A YMCA membership is not required and many of the services provided by on-site clinical professionals, including health screenings, are available at no cost.

We have six Healthy Living Centers locations across the First Coast with two more opening before the end of the year. Two of these centers, in partnership with Baptist Health, are located at the James Weldon Johnson Family YMCA and YMCA at Baptist North and reside in zip codes with majority black populations. Both centers work to address obesity, high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes.

Breaking down systemic racism and oppression is no easy feat. Tackling just one social issue won’t break the cycle. It will take all of us – First Coast residents, community leaders, businesses and elected officials – to have real conversations on how to create lasting change and ensure equal opportunities for every community.

We can start by looking beyond our own backyards and investing in the communities that need it most. The First Coast YMCA is ready to continue to be a willing partner in this journey to end health disparities.

For more than 110 years, the Y has been inspiring a brighter and healthier future for all in Northeast Florida. Our cause is strengthening community. No matter the challenges, we believe that together, we can and will create a better tomorrow for everyone who calls the First Coast home.

To make this time of racial reckoning more than a moment, Jacksonville must seek to understand how racism affects every aspect of daily life and is embedded in every system in our society. To that end, community leaders are speaking out on racial disparities across sectors, how they’re working to close them and what it will take to build a more just city. This article, published June 18, 2020 in the Florida Times-Union, is part of a series of columns.

Join the Conversation

June 27: World YMCA is hosting a global online event on June 27 at 10:00am to amplify the voices of young changemakers working to achieve a more just and inclusive world. The event is open to everyone, no matter age or status. The event will also be livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube.

July 1: Register to join a virtual YMCA town hall meeting hosted by the African American YMCA CEOs that will explore the topic of unlearning systemic racism on Wednesday, July 1, from 11:00am – 3:00pm.

Start Your Individual Anti-Racism Journey

Learn: Take Harvard’s Implicit Association Test to assess where you are at in your anti-racist journey and begin taking courses around diversity, inclusion, and equity. This can include personal learning (books, movies, podcasts, etc.) or formal training.