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Kathy Draeger

Kathy Draeger, director of the U's statewide Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, says public engagement keeps the U relevant to the needs of Minnesotans.

Growing up healthy

Faculty members are contributing to a major statewide initiative that links them to communities looking for long-term solutions

By Stephanie Wilkes

Brief, Feb. 21, 2007

Children across Minnesota will be growing up healthier due to a major project of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation. The foundation is funding 13 projects that seek long-term solutions to health issues. Four of those projects are engaging University faculty members in communities from Minneapolis to the Red River Valley.

"Growing Up Healthy: Kids and Communities" strives to improve the health of Minnesota's children by focusing on social and environmental factors that impact health.

Plans began in 2005 with six months of community meetings and determining the main goals, says program officer Lisa Simer. The foundation identified three main health determinants for the initiative:

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation

The foundation is the philanthropic arm of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, which, with 2.7 million members, is the largest health plan in the state. Since the foundation was established in 1986, it has worked to improve long-term community health in Minnesota. Its board of directors is comprised of Blue Cross leaders and community representatives.

"Growing Up Healthy: Kids and Communities" stemmed from the findings of an earlier foundation initiative, "Growing Up Healthy in Minnesota," which started in 2002. The focus of the first project was on improving access to--and use of--preventive health and dental care among children and adolescents from communities of color, foreign-born populations, and American Indian tribes.

After releasing a request for proposals in March last year, the foundation evaluated more than 70 applicants on their ability to create change in the identified areas. Another important factor in choosing projects was strong potential for collaboration within the community. In September, the foundation announced the projects to receive planning grants totaling $475,000.

"The value the University of Minnesota adds to this initiative is access to solid research and evaluation expertise," says Simer. "The participation of the University in these projects as an equal partner to support the community organizations is a significantly different approach to improving community health."

All the planning-grant recipients must develop a community vision, an implementation plan, and broad-based community support to qualify for the next step--implementation funding for a period up to three years.

Last week, faculty members involved in three of the projects described their work.

Healthy housing in urban communities

The U's Children, Youth and Family Consortium (CYFC) was awarded a $25,000 planning grant to collaborate with the Sustainable Resources Center, Sabathani Community Center, and Southside Family Nurturing Center of Minneapolis. Together they will design a project that integrates existing healthy-housing interventions and family-stability services to reduce children's exposure to environmental hazards indoors. By helping families meet their pressing needs, the cooperating groups hope those families will be able to better attend to environmental education and make health of their homes a priority.

CYFC director Cathy Jordan, an assistant professor of pediatrics, is one of the driving forces within the project. Her previous research on lead poisoning in children in the Phillips neighborhood from 1993 to 2003 helped spur her interest in healthy-housing intervention and the project.

Cathy Jordan
CYFC director Cathy Jordan

Jordan and her collaborators hope to improve practices in both the housing and human services industries by creating a service-delivery model that views the family in the context of the home and the home in the context of the family. The planning grant will enable the four organizations to explore each others' practices and design a project that draws on each organization's strengths. The project will involve evaluating the process and benefit of integrating healthy-housing intervention into the family services provided to clients by Sabathani Community Center and Southside Family Nurturing Center. A primary goal of the planning grant is to create a comprehensive service that "puts the family in the driver's seat," says Jordan.

In her experience working with the community, Jordan has learned a lot about the world of public engagement and hopes to make this project a positive one for both the University and the local community.

"Past community engagement mistakes have led to a lack of trust from the community," says Jordan. "Good public engagement is a way to build collaborations that benefit both sides and increase trust and communication."

Reducing exposure to household pesticides

The U's Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) were awarded a $25,000 planning grant to work with the Red River Valley community to reduce exposure to household pesticides in children and pregnant women.

Levels of pesticide exposure are high in the Red River Valley area, says RSDP director Kathy Draeger. Children and pregnant women are most at risk, which is why the project focuses primarily on their exposure and ways to reduce it.

In this stage of the project, Draeger and her collaborators are mostly gathering evidence and opinions about the growing problem. Using Photovoice, a new form of documentation technology, public health professor Pat McGovern and graduate student Maggie Stedman-Smith will conduct sessions with three different populations and document their concerns about pesticides in the area.

"Public engagement keeps the U relevant to the needs of Minnesotans, to whom they owe their attention," says Draeger. "I am a product of a rural population, and I know that communities can contribute and benefit from this public institution."

Improving school readiness

The Folwell Center for Urban Initiatives in Minneapolis was awarded a $25,000 planning grant to work in collaboration with the U's Center for Early Education and Development (CEED) and Hennepin County's Strategic Initiative and Community Engagement department. They will serve as members of a steering committee to evaluate and improve school readiness in north Minneapolis in their Five Hundred Under Five project.

Scott McConnell
CEED director of community engagement Scott McConnell. Photo by Leo Kim.

The three organizations will focus on providing 500 children under five years old, who live in two areas of north Minneapolis, with services and knowledge to ready them for kindergarten and their educational futures. The planning grant will allow the organizations to identify other organizations to come together, review their resources, and continue to monitor research on need and intervention effectiveness.

Scott McConnell, professor of educational psychology and CEED's director of community engagement, has worked with the Folwell Center in the past. He says CEED served as the conduit for the center to come in contact with the other organizations to collaborate on the project.

McConnell recognizes the value of integrating his work and research in a community project such as this.

"It's an example of engaged scholarship," says McConnell. "Our research is not being developed in isolation here on campus collaboration with community members to address pressing needs."

Stephanie Wilkes is a junior in English and linguistics and a communications intern in the Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail .