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Healthy Village Model Improves Community Health and Builds Local Green Economy

by Rosa González

How do people in low-income communities ravished by joblessness and public health crises become the drivers of their own green economic development? Green For All Fellow Selim Sandoval migrated from the rainforest farm life of Guatemala to the inner city streets of South Central Los Angeles, and is now a social entrepreneur, educator, and community builder who recognizes the power of cooperation and team action.

Through the Green the Rez campaign and the Write Choice Network, he and partner Monica Niess are seeding a healthy village model of community development by connecting impoverished communities to the funds and resources needed to play a leadership role in revitalizing economic, ecological and personal health.

Inspired by Green The Block, a collaboration between Green For All and the Hip Hop Caucus, Selim spearheaded the Green The Rez campaign as a way to put tribal knowledge and leadership at the forefront of green development. These efforts quickly gave way to a focus on community health as the centerpiece of development.

"Through our work on Native American reservations, we quickly realized through conversations with tribal leaders that improving the health of their communities was the top priority," says Selim. For this reason, they began focusing their efforts on securing federal grant monies and other resources to establish Federally Qualified Health Centers on rural reservations and Urban Indian neighborhoods.

But these community health centers go beyond the conventional model of simply providing treatment to the sick. They are becoming the economic drivers in their communities, acting as organizing hubs for building a green economy and helping to spur green collar job creation. These centers are working to establish community gardens and improve access to locally grown, fresh foods – a key element to improving the health of a person with diabetes and other chronic illnesses, and a cornerstone of localizing the food system.

These health centers also play a role in working with other tribal departments to provide an overall healthier environment in their communities through improved air and water quality and implementing green building techniques and renewable energy.

The village model of community health is about more than just treating illness; it is a holistic approach encompassing all aspects of wellness from improving diet and nutrition to addressing environmental health concerns while alleviating stress caused by joblessness and poverty. The healthy village model of community development is testament to the power of the green economy to address some of our most pressing social issues.

Through the Write Choice Network, Selim and Monica are helping to spread this comprehensive approach to community development to communities outside the reservation system and are discovering striking parallels between reservation life and the realities faced by residents of inner cities.

An example can be found near San Francisco.  Just ten miles north, Marin City is a city founded by migrant workers from the South, and was the backbone of the ship building industry during World War II. After the war, the federal government abandoned them in what is now known as Marin City. The largely African-American community was left without employment, permanent housing, access to healthcare, a super market, or public transportation. What makes Marin City so special is that even then, County of Marin was an extremely wealthy community, while Marin City residents were left with nothing despite the integral role they had played in rebuilding our Navy in the 1940s and 50s.

Determined to improve their quality of life, Marin City residents organized themselves to build their community and were successful in getting the county to build them permanent public housing. Continuing this tradition of community organizing for basic needs, the residents have recently established their own local health center.

"Marin City is one of the poorest cities in the nation surrounded by the wealthiest county in the world. Marin City residents, like so many other low-income communities of color, are resilient, hard working people, committed to achieving community development through self-determination," says Selim. With the help of the Write Choice Network, leaders and service-providers in Marin City are applying for critical federal funding (made available through President Obama's Health Care Reform Bill) to expand their health clinic following the healthy village model of community development.

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