Community Health Heroes
An Interview with Kerene Tayloe
Kerene Tayloe is a Federal Policy Associate with WE ACT, an organization based in New York, NY, that empowers and organizes low-income people of color to build healthy communities for all. We spoke with Kerene about her work with WE ACT and the role of prevention in community health.
There’s so much to do when it comes to building healthy communities. How do you choose what to focus on?
WE ACT has a small, but mighty, staff that strategically works to build healthy communities in northern Manhattan. We have five focus areas: climate justice, clean air, healthy homes, sustainable and equitable land use, and good jobs. Those are our strengths, and they matter to the northern Manhattan community in which we work. As hard as it can be, all nonprofits have to narrow their focus at some point to make the biggest impact. At WE ACT, we had to be honest and ask ourselves what we can actually take on, what we can be effective at doing, and what we can do as an organization that won’t overburden us or put us in a position where we’re running really thin with our staff members. I think quality of life within your work environment matters, too, so as an organization we need to think about our employees and the workload that they have.
Do any of your programs at WE ACT focus on prevention as a health strategy?
In terms of prevention, the Healthy Homes program is something that we’re putting a lot of energy into. A lot of the communities we represent in New York are renters, so that makes them dependent on landlords to act appropriately in terms of the maintenance of these homes. However, many homes in New York and Washington, DC, are pre-World War II, and their condition may not be up to par. At one point, lead paint was considered safe inside homes, yet now we know lead is a dangerous neurotoxin and causes a lot of developmental problems.
The rate of asthma in the community we represent in Harlem is 1 in 4 for children. The national average for children is 1 in 11. So there’s clearly a disparity in living and environmental conditions in our community versus what is present in communities nationally. Our Healthy Homes program focuses on some of these indoor allergens and triggers and figures out the right way through policy initiatives and campaigns to work with local governments and other organizations to attempt to address some of those problems for the community at large.
Watch a video from the National Academies on how the integration of primary care and public health can enhance the capacity of both sectors to carry out their respective missions.
What is the value of strategies that focus on prevention, as opposed to waiting until there’s an acute health issue?
My baby brother had asthma. We may not have fully understood what those triggers were in our home at the time, but we spent a lot of time at the hospital. My mother spent a lot of time away from work. That’s an economic hardship – missing days of work and missing days of school. All of those things have a financial impact. All of those things could potentially impact a child’s ability to stay on track in school and not fall behind. If you’re only focused on the treatment, you might be able to limit the number of asthma attacks or help a child get through it with treatments, but it never fixes the problem.
It’s great that hospitals and universities are looking at prevention and the root causes of health problems, too, because then the data they find gives a lot more foundation to the moral justification for why a policy needs to change to benefit a community. It can be hard to justify creating a policy and spending money, just because it’s the right or moral thing. But if advocates demonstrate the data, and the science lines up with the ability to articulate why this is morally, ethically, and scientifically wrong to treat people this way, it gives folks the power to push back.
What are some of the challenges of a prevention-oriented approach?
I think it takes more time. When you look at things from the standpoint of preventing an outcome, it’s not going to have an instantaneous result. It may be something you have to track over the course of years and even decades to see the effects of a decision to implement a policy or change an initiative or practice in someone’s home. But when we talk about having a culture of health, that might be the most important step.
In terms of challenges, when you take a prevention approach, you could also find out, hypothetically, that there’s a corporation that’s causing health problems, and maybe your city or county’s tax base is dependent on its presence. How do you figure out ways to remediate that problem with that corporation and still not be a hindrance to someone’s livelihood? You don’t want people to lose their jobs, but you also have to understand that some entities in a community may have a positive impact from an economic standpoint but a negative environmental impact. It’s not easy.
What inspired you to get into this work?
I’ve always liked to be outside and go running, and anytime I travel, I always try to go for a walk or a run. But I’ve noticed that the further I go from my hotel or my school campus, the more I see the community change in terms of access to important services. First, I’ll see a really great farmers market or really great grocery store. Then, a quarter of a mile later, there might be a liquor store or a convenience store that’s not selling anything I would want to eat. I always wonder, if they don’t have a really good grocery store, how is it that they’re getting what they need, and how is this limiting them? I’d run through neighborhoods and I would think, that’s not fair, and they don’t have the power to change it. Someone else is making a decision for this community and not taking into consideration their needs. My going to law school was always about me being a social engineer or using my degree to advance social justice issues and to push for policies that could benefit someone.
What advice do you have for young people who want to get involved in their communities?
As young people we sometimes forget that there’s a legacy or history of people already working on issues we care about. One of the key principles of democratic organizing is allowing people to speak for themselves. Sometimes younger people might join a cause and the excitement we feel may not respect the leadership that is already in place. It is imperative that we learn about an organization and recognize the leaders already present. As young people, we can enter into a space and provide social media skills, technical skills, and background skills that can push an agenda or a movement beyond what it currently is if we come in and learn, listen, and figure out what skills we can provide that community to help amplify their voice. Most likely they’ve been doing it for decades, and they’re just waiting for a spry young person to come in and say, I care too! The way movements work is that they have to be passed on.
How do you inspire yourself to keep going, and what would you recommend for other people who want to do the same?
That’s why I really like to go for a run. It helps clear my mind. I found myself running 13 miles one day. I just couldn’t stop. You have to take care of yourself, whether it’s developing your yoga practice or taking a kickboxing class. You have to literally decide to do this, because if you’re going to devote yourself to a struggle or a cause, you are your tool and you are your weapon. Your mind has to be sharp. Your body has to be well. You have to learn how to breathe and give your mind the oxygen it needs to do the work that you’re doing. You do a disservice to your cause if you allow yourself to get sick, don’t eat right, and don’t take your vitamins. All of the things that make you a healthy person and create a culture of health start with yourself. I’m going to control the things I can control so that I can do the work I’m supposed to do. And that’s also prevention.