S.E. Williams | Contributor

Community leaders, citizens, UCR faculty and staff, politicians, students and other stakeholders gathered Wednesday, October 23, 2019 at the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts in downtown Riverside to celebrate the presentation of the UCR School of Medicine’s Center for Health Communities’ (CHC) 2018 2019 Inaugural Impact Report.

 In 2014 CHC started building bridges with community groups, working with a variety of UCR faculty—especially those in health-related disciplines—and progressed toward its goals of promoting and seeking funds for innovative community-engaged research aimed at improving the health of communities in the inland region.

 In the process, CHC is addressing the varying needs of a diverse community that is 50.02 percent Hispanic or Latino, 33.37 percent White and 6.92 percent Black, while also responding to different language needs. 

Dean Deborah Deas

 Being a viable local to inland area communities through engagement is a pivotal priority for the organization as many in the area face educational and/or income barriers. This includes more than 34 percent of area residents with limited if any high school education and the greater than 20 percent whose annual income levels are below $25,000. 

 Deputy Director Michelle Burroughs, M.P.H. opened the evening’s celebration expressing her excitement at having an opportunity to share CHC’s Inaugural Report with, “university faculty and staff, students, community stakeholders, supporters, fundraisers and sponsors.”

Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey addressed attendees and congratulated the CHC on its accomplishments to date. He further acknowledged the important work of the organization, thanked them for their efforts and expressed the city’s commitment and support of its goals. 

CHC has demonstrated its commitment to engagement by participating in several community-based  initiatives that included such disparate activities as the Great American Cleanup—Keep Riverside Clean and Beautiful initiative; the UCR Health 5K Run/Walk at Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside; the  Festival in the Fields at UCR’s Palm Desert Center in Palm Desert; Los Posadas De Riverside at the city’s Arlanza Community Center; the Distribution of Street Medicine Hygiene Kits at Health to Hope Clinics across Riverside; the Youth Leadership and Uplift Conference at Riverside’s J.W. North High School; and a partnership with The IE Voice/Black Voice News where CHC interns develop their writing skills while informing the community of public health issues through news reports. 

CHC Deputy Director Michelle Burroughs (L) with Team Armando

Burroughs stressed how CHC’s vision of community engagement consists of a combined focus on service, education and research. This combined emphasis has compelled the organization to build collaborations and partnerships between university researchers and inland area communities that not only addresses communities’ needs, while also promoting health equity. In pursuit of this goal, CHC is working assertively to engage a broad range of community, academic and health partners.

Dean Deborah Deas leads the UC Riverside School of Medicine (SOM). Among the six medical schools in the University of California system, UCR’s SOM is the system’s only community-based medical school.  During her address to those in attendance at Wednesday’s gathering Deas discussed the importance of CHC’s relationship with the community it serves stressing, “What we do ‘with the community’ not what we do ‘to the community.’”

CHC has an aggressive, five-year plan to achieve specific goals. They include increasing community engagement by collaborating on six new community events each year; building the capacity of local organizations by offering an increased number of community-based participatory “research training” opportunities to no less than 40. In addition, it hopes to transition 50 percent of its community partners into participatory community-based “research partnerships” in order to increase such efforts in the inland region. 

During the session Burroughs also shared the organizations progress on one of its most significant initiatives to date, the Air Quality Project. The effort is aimed at addressing the increase number of heavy-duty diesel trucks producing toxic emissions and their associated health impacts on area residents. The projects goals are two-fold. First, to communicate the air quality and health concerns unique to the area and secondly to develop a community emissions reduction action plan. 

Mayor Rusty Bailey speaking at event

Residents living in zip code 92507 are particularly impacted by this issue especially students who attend J.W. North High School, their families and neighbors. Under Burroughs’ stewardship, the CHC working in partnership with administrators, teachers, students and their parents have reached some major findings which include learning a majority of residents in zip code 92507 consider air quality an important issue. Residents also considered the lack of awareness and civic/community engagement as the main reason there has not been improvement to the air quality in Riverside. 

Working in partnership with the community on this important issue, they will continue to raise awareness and expand engagement as they work towards a civic-fostered solution to this problem.

Yet, air quality is not the only issue of importance impacting the health of this community.  CHC conducted a survey of residents that revealed three additional priorities identified by respondents including: childhood obesity, community safety and access to healthcare.

The Air Quality Project was facilitated in partnership with the UCR Burns College of Engineering, the NAACP of Riverside, the Latino Network and J.W. North High School. 

CHC also recognizes that across the region there are residents and organizations eager to understand the public health issues impacting communities and to build the capacity needed to educate and assist others in hopes of improving health-related outcomes in their communities.  In anticipation of this need, CHC faculty and staff offer comprehensive training related to the social detriments of health, public health and health equity. 

The celebration provided a great opportunity for attendees to learn more about the scope of CHC’s work. Other speakers included Dr. Monica Carson, Interim Chair of Social Medicine, Population and Public Health and Gabriel Maldonado, CEO of TruEvolution. 

One of the most exciting segments of the evening centered around the awarding of four, $5,000 grants through CHC’s Community Medicine and Population Health Mini-Grants Program. The program is designed to engage medical students, graduate students, residents and fellows of the UCR in service and advocacy projects within the Inland Empire communities focused on projects that serve the underserved; improves access to medical care and resources for at-risk populations; promotes cross-departmental collaboration and community-partnered research; or increases community engagement opportunities for the UCR School of Medicine.  

“CHC planned on only awarding two mini-grants,” said Burroughs. “However, due to the support of our amazing community partners the Inland Empire Health Plan (IEHP) and Riverside Community Health Foundation (RCHF), we were able to offer a total of four (4) mini-grants.” Recipients included, the Street Medicine Mission for the Underserved (Team Winn); Sex Trafficking Escape Packs (Team Tapia); Global Health at Home (Team Armando)- funded by IEHP; and HPV in the Inland Empire (Team Polonijo) –funded by RCHF.