Everybody, it seems, wants to help the youth. 10 middle schools in Greensboro, North Carolina will receive $1,500 each to buy pulse meters and other equipment to boost fitness among their students (North Carolina as a whole has seen its obesity rise 15% since 1995, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s annual health report). The Philadelphia Inquirer reported 5 pregnant ninth grade girls participating in ELECT—Education Leading to Employment and Career Training–a program that allows pregnant students to remain in school and graduate as they prepare for motherhood. In New York, former first lady Michele Paige Paterson’s ‘Healthy Steps to Albany’ Challenge rewarded middle school children for exercising and eating more produce with a pair of sneakers and a trip to a farm to learn about agriculture. Nationally, first lady Michelle Obama launched the ‘Let’s Move’ initiative in February 2010 with the goal of eliminating childhood obesity, receiving a pledge from 16 of the country’s largest food corporations to cut 1 trillion calories from their products by 2012.
These are just a few of the measures addressing a generally-acknowledged health crisis affecting young people. Yet, Dr. Janice Johnson Dias, president of GrassROOTS Community Foundation, questions whether these isolated tactics will lead to the thorough, long-lasting results desired. “We think that if we work at one level and ignore the others, we can really ameliorate or fix the problem. That’s silly…We want to be concerned that hypertension and diabetes are going up, but that’s just one component…What is the relationship between obesity and educational outcomes?”
The ‘eat less, move more’ approach is pithy and easy to throw money at in the form of posters, public service announcements and gym equipment, but Dias sees holes in fixing symptoms instead of addressing root causes of issues like obesity. “People are obese. What gives rise to that? Sometimes it’s really shitty communities that don’t have access to the things they need. Sometimes it is because of the structural conditions that [are] related to their school environment. Sometimes it’s a history or legacy of experiences that has made them clinically depressed.”
With GrassROOTS Community Foundation, Dias, a full-time professor in the Sociology Department at John Jay College, targets not just the poor nutrition of young women, but mental and sexual health as well. Drawing on an abundance of analytical research, her organization has designed a variety of programs around a multi-faceted, multicultural approach to educating young women about their bodies and minds (including a kemetic yoga class for girls ages 5-9), and involving their families in solutions.
This ‘whole body and mind’ approach hit close to home for Tariq ‘Black Thought’ Trotter of The Roots, who also happens to be the father of a young girl. He and Dias met when she was his broke grad student neighbor in Philadelphia and he was, in her mind, some reggae guy who knew how to cook. Only after grudgingly attending one of his concerts, did she realize that ‘the roots’ he was involved in had nothing to do with Jamaica.
“We were out of touch with another for a while, during which time we both had kids and now we have daughters that are the same age and facing the same issues,” Trotter explains. Around the time Janice began speaking more on young women’s health, similar ideas were percolating for Trotter and his family.
“Health issues, issues with nutrition and sexual and mental health. Some of the things I was beginning to try and figure out with my wife–like what could we do to better the situation for my daughter and girls like my daughter–happened to coincide with what [Janice] was already doing.”
“Tariq and I see our daughters as existing in the world where there are other Black girls…that they’re all a part of the same continuum,” Dias continues. “So we know these issues around obesity, around sexual promiscuity, around depression are real…so we wanted to try to figure out how do we help not only our own girls, but how do we help the girls they’re likely to be friends with, that they’re likely to know?”
There are many challenges to running an organization designed to help young women with limited resources to help themselves, one of them being the apparent bias built into the program’s mission. The focus on young women is a bold move in a world that tends to fetishize the plight of Black men in music, documentaries and traditional after school programming—a tendency Dias is well aware of, yet feels no pressure to bow to.
“Our investment in women and girls is not to be pitted against an investment in boys. What we recognize is that women give birth to nations. They give birth to men. The first caregivers are women and so when they shake, it’s not really possible for men to be healthy, for them to get the education they need.”
GCF is based in Philadelphia, and currently active in Newark, New Jersey and Greensboro, NC with plans to reach seven other cities with a three-year commitment in each, and later, operate programs in international locations. “Philadelphia’s a challenge and an opportunity. It gives us a sense of what it will be like when we go to Jackson, Mississippi or we go to Augusta, Georgia because of these deeper, entrenched issues,” Dias comments. A case in point is GCF’s funding of a program at Warren G. Harding Middle School in the Frankford area of Philly, which includes fitness, aquatics training and self-esteem courses. However, Dias soon realized the girls didn’t have school uniforms and many families used food pantries, so the program was attempting to supplement when these girls didn’t have many basics to supplement.
The ten cities on GCF’s list were pinpointed using a cross-section of needs including, but not limited to obesity, putting Dias’ love of academic analysis to great use. “How would one be able to measure mental health? Suicide rates became our proxy for mental health because that means you’re at the extreme of it. Then, we wanted to think about sexual health, where we had to think about HIV and AIDS and so much of that plagues our community…So I asked the statistician, ‘Where are the places that if these four things coalesce, and especially for impoverished women and women of color, where are they in the United States?’ If you are a woman or a girl and this city has all four of them then you are in a bad place.”
Given GCF’s desire to get more creative types from the hip-hop realm involved–a world not always known for its love and support of women–it’s a pleasant surprise that Trotter is one of the organization’s biggest cheerleaders.
“I feel like my contribution is going to be ever-changing… I don’t think I’m a superstar, but I feel like The Roots has a brand that we’re able to use without necessarily exploiting it…There’s no specific job description above and beyond the musical contribution or entertaining people to raise funds and organizing and rallying other artists, like-minded individuals…but who knows.”
GrassROOTS Community Foundation’s major annual fundraising event is a benefit concert that allows the organization to award a grant to a community-based organization (CBO) to continue working with disadvantaged women. The 2011 concert featured Black Thought and the Money Making Jam Boys. An EP is in the works with other ‘like-minded individuals’ such as Talib Kweli, Common and Erykah Badu, but Dias is hoping to get even more artists to answer the call.
“One of the great things about being friends with Tariq is that I came to him and was like, ‘Yo, y’all haven’t done anything since “Self-Destruction.” When are y’all gonna contribute to the world again?’…And yet, we know [hip-hop] is the largest, most transformative medium we have.”
Beyond benefit concerts and financial contributions, Trotter sees the long-term potential for the organization and its participants. “A success story is a girl who is involved with the program at a young age growing into a healthy woman, a productive woman. The ultimate success story is a woman who comes out of this program [who] years down the line and is able to make a contribution back into this same program or an organization like this.”
To find out more, follow @GrassRootsFound on twitter.