The city of Flint has been selected by Reinvestment Fund and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to take part in a new Invest Health initiative and Michigan State University is helping to lead the way.

Debra Furr-Holden, a Charles Stewart Mott Foundation Endowed Professor of Public Health in the College of Human Medicine, will represent MSU in an effort that is aimed at transforming how leaders from mid-size American cities work together to help low-income communities thrive. Invest Health will pay particular attention to community features that drive health such as access to safe and affordable housing, places to play and exercise and quality jobs.

Flint was selected from more than 180 teams from 170 communities that applied to the initiative. Cities with populations between 50,000 and 400,000 were asked to form five-member teams including representatives from the public sector, community development, and an anchor institution, which in this case, was identified as MSU.

In addition to Furr-Holden, the Invest Health project team includes Mark Valacak, Genesee County Health Department health officer; E. Yvonne Lewis, Genesee Health Plan outreach director and founder/CEO of the National Center for African-American Health Consciousness; Suzanne Selig, professor and director of Public Health and Health Professions, University of Michigan-Flint; and Kent Key, deputy executive director of the Community Based Organization Partners.

This multi-sector, diverse leadership team seeks to develop sustainable, long-term solutions to addresses the physical (e.g., diabetes and hypertension) and behavioral health (e.g., mental health and substance use) challenges faced by Flint residents as a function of their water-based exposure and chronic toxic stress.

“The water crisis has devastated Flint residents in profound ways, placing them at severe risk for diminished physical and behavioral health,” Furr-Holden said. “Our interventions will focus on strengthening partnerships with community stakeholders, including community-based organizations and our local government, to address issues such as food access, public safety and community development in Flint.”

Mid-size American cities face some of the nation’s deepest challenges with entrenched poverty, poor health and a lack of investment. But they also offer fertile ground for strategies that improve health and have the potential to boost local economies. The program has the potential to fundamentally transform the way Flint improves opportunities to live healthy lives by addressing the drivers of health including jobs, housing, education, community safety and environmental conditions.

“With a long history in community development finance, we are excited to help create a pipeline to channel capital into low-income communities through public and private investments,” said Amanda High, Chief of Strategic Initiatives at Reinvestment Fund. “Our goal is to transform how cities approach tough challenges, share lessons learned and spur creative collaboration.”

Over the next 18 months, Invest Health teams will each receive $60,000 of grant funding and take part in a vibrant learning community, gaining access to highly skilled faculty advisors and coaches who will guide their efforts toward improved health. Flint will also engage a broader group of local stakeholders to encourage local knowledge sharing.

“Public officials, community developers, and many others have been working in low-income neighborhoods for years, but they haven’t always worked together,” said Donald Schwarz, vice president, program, with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Invest Health aims to align their work and help neighborhoods thrive by intentionally incorporating health into community development.”

Project teams will travel to Philadelphia for a kick-off meeting on June 7th and will meet regularly to share lessons learned throughout the 18-month project. Flint joins Lansing, Pontiac and Grand Rapids as Michigan cities involved in the effort.

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by Geri Kelley