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Children working in a community garden

Place-based health in Central Texas

Guest Author: Tasha Banks, MSc

I grew up in an African-American household where food and cooking were at the heart of a lot of the time we spent together.  Both of my parents grew up in very rural areas of North Texas and learned how to make do with what you have and to make it taste good!  We knew it wasn’t the healthiest of food, but it was what they had access to in their neighborhood and it was made with a lot of love. At the same time, many of my family members have also experienced some adverse health outcomes due to the challenges of living in place with systemic problems in healthy food access – family members suffered from diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, obesity, and strokes.

Now as a community health practitioner, I think: what if health practitioners and researchers had asked people like my family and our neighbors what they felt was the best way to improve the health of our community?  That’s the focus of the Center for Place Based Initiatives (CPBI) at Dell Medical School.  The CPBI aims to connect and support community members, organizers, partners, and academic researchers to do place-based work.  Place-based initiatives use a community approach to address interventions in a specific geographic area.  In other words, people-powered local solutions to local problems!

It is important that project ideas are community-led because residents are the experts on the community in which they live.  The CPBI also looks for these community ideas to be rooted in self-determination, that they support permanency, and that the project has a clear path for sustainability.  Beyond that, if the CPBI team is not the best fit to help plan and implement a project, we are committed to being “matchmakers” and helping to find the right collaborators who are.  It seems obvious, but place-based strategies represent a newly growing field in community care.

To be truly good stewards of the trust placed on us by our community colleagues, we must create the space for their ideas and their voices.  Projects have ranged from integrating traditional indigenous medicine in clinical settings to creating learning opportunities that give students a glimpse into the homelessness experience in Austin.

In February 2019, we will launch an Intergenerational Gardening project in the historically African-American neighborhoods in East Austin, where local youth will install backyard gardens at the homes of seniors in their community. Not only will these seniors now have access to healthy food, but they will be able to share their stories and histories with the youth.  I can only imagine the impact this kind of program would have had in my own community growing up.

The goal of these projects is not only to help improve the health outcomes of the communities receiving these services, but also to share their realities and stories with others with the hope of building greater empathy and understanding in our Austin community.  We believe that empathy is a great starting point for building sustainable, people-powered solutions for health.

Tasha Banks is the Assistant Director of Community Engagement and Health Equity in the Department of Population Health at the Dell Medical School.  As a result of her experience of working with kids with HIV/AIDS while she was in high school, she knew public health and working with communities struggling with many health disparities would be a part of her life’s work. She went on to earn her Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis, and her MSc in Global Health and Medical Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh.   Prior to working in population health, Tasha worked as a yoga instructor and as a program manager for multiple non-profit organizations with a focus on social emotional learning skills, trauma informed care and healing, and wellness for youth mainly in the East Austin area.