Abutting I-44 and wedged between Compton and McKinley Heights, the Fox Park neighborhood of St. Louis is a small community with a culture of its own. A painted fleur de lis pattern dances across the asphalt, and green fire hydrants (painted with a fox, of course) stand sentry along the sidewalks.
It is October, and Lindsay Elliott, Director of Community Health Initiatives at DeSales Community Housing Corporation, leads a group of Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) students through the neighborhood, gesturing toward homes bought and sold for the purpose of increasing diversity in the neighborhood. The group crosses a street corner, and she greets a woman standing outside her storefront. The tour of the neighborhood ends at a small community garden, just down the street from Fox Park, the neighborhood’s namesake.
However, despite its name, the park itself has not had much of an influence in building community within the neighborhood. In fact, because of crime and lack of amenities, the park was largely underutilized. When Elliott joined DeSales Community Housing Corporation as part of a Masters in Social Work/Public Health internship, she saw the neighborhood park as an opportunity to tackle mental health and obesity concerns in the area. Since she joined, she has written grant proposals and worked with the Missouri Foundation for Health to to make Fox Park a strong park by supporting greening and community gardening efforts. Fitness activities, including a t-ball little league, have sprung up in the neighborhood. Moreover, a new community health center is in the works.
These ideas are just the beginning of measures taken by the Jefferson Collaborative, which is composed of DeSales, KIPP St. Louis, and the Southside Early Childhood Center. Founded in early 2014, the Collaborative seeks to “collectively impact the neighborhood in which the three organizations are located,” specifically the neighborhoods surrounding Jefferson Avenue between I-44 and Cherokee Street. Alongside Lindsay Elliott, David Stiffler from Equifax, Carrick Reddin from WUSTL, and Alderman Christine Ingrassia have had a large hand in the development of the Jefferson Collaborative. Elliott spoke with confidence about the future for the Collaborative, saying, “There’s definitely an energy for positive improvements. Things will happen, things will get done.”
Most importantly, Elliott and others involved with the Collaborative focus on the ways in which the community is involved in the planning and execution of these improvements. She explains the process of going door-to-door to obtain data and opinions. Moreover, a new Healthy Community Council, composed entirely of residents, helps to direct changes and initiatives. She explains, “I’m an outsider to this community. I want to work in tandem – I want it to be their voice that drives anything we do.” Accompanying this deference is a true respect and love for Elliott by the residents. Mary, a senior living in Fox Park, waves at the group of students and gives Elliott a huge hug. As the Jefferson Collaborative brings together multiple aspects of community (health, education, child care, government), so it also amasses the experiences and desires of a variety of residents.
Other than cheering on work being done by the Collaborative to improve quality life within St. Louis, how might students get involved with these efforts?
For Carrick Reddin, a senior in the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, getting involved meant filling a need: “Kelly Garrett, the executive director of KIPP St. Louis, emphasized the importance of having green space and playgrounds for the KIPP Scholars to play and learn. When everyone seemed to be at a loss for how to go about designing that kind of space, I stepped up. Over the course of the next year and a half, I worked with numerous leaders in the nonprofit, public and corporate spheres, collecting their visions and incorporating them into a collective design for the space.” Along with fellow students Brendan Ziebarth and Rylie Davis, Redding “continued work on the park design and met with KIPP students and local residents to ensure the design met the expectations of all stakeholders.” The KaBOOM! playground build during early November relied on over 250 volunteers to erect a playground for KIPP Wisdom, a local elementary school, within seven hours.
The playground itself is a testament to various ideas working together in tandem. Redding described the playground design as “integrat[ing] a collection of ideas and visions” by “[l]inking in with ongoing initiatives of the Mayor’s Office and local nonprofits.”
In a similar vein, Maria Ruiz, a junior at WUSTL studying anthropology and looking into public health, notes the importance of this integration between different bodies of knowledge. She states, “We can move forward with a partnership, or with the development of a project, but awareness of ourselves and the community must come first. I think it is important that public health is an interdisciplinary field that involves architecture, city planning, policy, transportation, technology, education, and history, to name a few.”
Moreover, Ruiz, when asked to define the relationship between community and health, notes that a “patient’s health is not singularly an outcome of a disease, but rather has to do with the complex social and political institutions in which the patient lives. These two terms come together in a greater understanding that the usefulness of health is not in the state itself, but in … what one is allowed to do and to be within their communities – that a person has as a result of existing in the state of health.” Health depends not on a single aspect such as nutrition or access to medical care but rather the entire living space, which can encompass everything from housing to safe places of play to community stability.
Within this understanding that community health is an incredibly messy business, Lindsay Elliott, Carrick Redding, and Maria Ruiz share a common ground. Bringing together people of all different backgrounds can be a daunting task, and one that can be both challenging and beneficial for those involved. For example, the volunteers for the KaBOOM! build were a resource and support team for the community, but the demographics of the group (mostly WUSTL students and people from the McKesson Corporation) did not reflect that of the neighborhood. In situations where students enter a community as strangers, Redding echoes Elliott’s sentiments that “it is very important to our conversations within WashU” that “we discuss the shift from ‘doing for’ to ‘doing with’– from service to change.”
However, at the end of the day, Elliott encourages students to spend time in neighborhoods such as Fox Park. “Our community is a canvas for social innovation,” she states, “a space where people can bring innovative ideas that are aimed to advance social justice, whatever that might be.” Though community health proves to be far-reaching and comprehensive, perhaps the best way to improve living communities is to dive into them, hands and mouth still but ears ready to listen.