Health and Welfare

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 22.

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.


Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Everyone Has the Right To... | Vol. 16, No. 1 | Spring 2009 | Credits

Building a Healthy Barrio in San José

In Mexico, I knew where my food came from. My parents and grandparents cultivated their own food or we ate food that was grown locally. In this country, fast and processed food is cheap, abundant, and addictive. Our eating habits changed completely.” So says Sandra M., community leader from the Mayfair neighborhood of San Jose, California, speaking about the diabetes epidemic affecting her family and community.

Diabetes is a disease known throughout the world. But few people are aware of the dangers associated with it until it actually affects them or someone close to them. Sandra M., who immigrated to the United States from Ocotlán, Mexico, saw her mother-in-law struggle with diabetes for 10 years before succumbing to it. Now her mother—like many others in her community—has been diagnosed with the same disease and Sandra is determined to fight the epidemic through a campaign of education and awareness.

A Bellwether for Latino Health
It is often said that the United States, as a nation, is facing a crisis of obesity and diabetes, but the population hit hardest of all are Latinos with 50 percent of their children projected to develop diabetes in their lifetime. In fact, for a snapshot of the problem, you only have to visit east San Jose, California, in the neighborhood of Mayfair; a poor, working class community of about 20,000, made up largely of recent immigrants from Mexico. Denied access to healthcare and health education due to poverty, racism, language barriers, and undocumented status, the population registers as one of the most overweight among all ethnic groups in Santa Clara County.

Undoubtedly, some extraordinary efforts have been made in recent years to enroll most children in Santa Clara County in a healthcare plan. But lack of access to healthcare is only one part of the problem faced by Latinos living in low-income barrios like Mayfair. The greater problem is posed by the very environment of the barrio—with minimal access to safe public spaces for physical activity, healthy meals at school, or public facilities offering health programs. There is also a lack of affordable fresh foods, such as organic fruits and vegetables, in local markets.

Cultivating Power
Somos Mayfair ( is a place-based organization with a mission to cultivate the dreams and power the people of Mayfair through direct service, cultural activism, and community organizing. Since 1996, Somos Mayfair has fielded a team of community health educators called promotores who have worked with hundreds of local families to increase their access to health services. Faced with the growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes, over the past three years, Somos Mayfair has developed a unique and comprehensive approach to addressing the crisis.

Firstly, recognizing that any community organizing effort can only succeed with the support and commitment of individuals, Somos began by recruiting 50 Mayfair families annually to participate in a five-month intervention program to change behaviors that impact diabetes risk factors. The families participate in three months of weekly exercise and nutrition classes offered by partner organizations, following which, the participants are encouraged to initiate and lead a two-month community project focused on sustaining the health behavioral changes they have learned. Program participants are also urged to develop their leadership skills by passing on the health lessons learned to their neighbors in Mayfair.

Popular Theater Takes on the “American Dream”
On a larger scale, Somos works alongside community leaders to implement health education and dialogue campaigns using popular education and cultural activism, with the aim of increasing knowledge about the social, economic, political, and cultural causes of obesity and diabetes.

In the Fall of 2007, Somos collaborated with Teatro Familias Unidas de Mayfair, a Mayfair mothers’ theatre troupe, to develop a culturally relevant skit about the structural issues that contribute to poor health in the Latino community. The result was La Dulce Vida y la Amarga Muerte de Pancho Mojado (The Sweet Life and Bitter Death of Pancho Mojado)—a 25-minute play that uses humor and the traditional Mexican icon of death, La Catrina, to highlight the dangers of unhealthy eating and unmask the socio-economic causes of diabetes.

The story depicts La Catrina using the “American Dream” of excessive consumption to seduce people like Pancho to an early grave. With the help of the corporate food system and aggressive marketing, she takes advantage of the immigrant’s poor access to healthcare and healthy food to grow her business of death. Pancho’s wife struggles to convince him to change his habits and take diabetes seriously but he brushes aside her concerns and pursues his right to “the good life.” Ultimately, Pancho is shown the error of his ways by an indigenous woman who implores him to draw on his cultural and familial values and resist the false promises of the American Dream.

At the end of a performance, Somos facilitates a dialogue to deconstruct the messages within the play and assess their impact on the audience. To date, about 1500 people have seen the more than 35 performances, followed by participatory workshops to expand the analysis of the growing diabetes epidemic among Latino families.

Teatro Familias is currently exploring the connections between physical health and the ecological crisis affecting the global food system with a new street theater production called “The Cry of Mother Earth,” which premiered this April.

The Active Mothers of Mayfair

Also in 2007, Somos recruited a group of 16 Mayfair mothers—all of whom had a close family member with diabetes—to form Madres Activas de Mayfair (Active Mayfair Mothers), aka MAM. Over a five-month period, MAM conducted participatory action research to study the multiple environmental factors that contribute to the high incidence of obesity and diabetes in Mayfair. The women learned to use Photovoice, the community research method where resident leaders are given cameras to photograph the neighborhood and then analyze the environmental assets and barriers to exercise. The target for the group’s first health advocacy campaign was the neighborhood infrastructure for family physical activity and recreation.

The health infrastructure barriers in Mayfair are several: Firstly, the community has only one open space available for exercise, even though there are four elementary schools in the area; secondly, playgrounds in the affordable housing complexes are unsafe because of ill-maintained equipment; and thirdly, gang violence, drugs, and crime in the neighborhood effectively deter children and families from attempting outdoor physical activity.

MAM identified the new Mayfair Community Center, which reopened in January 2009, as key to implementing the goal of eliminating the environmental barriers to physical activity, obesity, and chronic disease among Mayfair families. They strongly advocated for health and wellness policies to be given priority at the Center and pushed for more community members to become engaged in promoting health. The Center, prior to opening, committed to prioritize health programming. Somos Mayfair and some of its partners have been selected as collaborating partners by the City of San Jose to deliver health programming in the community through the Center.

¡Sí Se Puede!
To successfully create a healthy community, the changes have to occur at many levels. Individual choices and institutional policies must both favor access to healthy food and healthcare, and a safe environment for exercise. Individual behavior changes, even within the most marginalized communities, can be influenced through outreach and education that is culturally relevant and community-led—as has been shown by the work of place-based organizations like Somos Mayfair. Once individuals are convinced of a need within their community, they must channel

Rebecca Bauen is associate director of Somos Mayfair. She formerly directed Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security, which helps low-income women establish eco-friendly cleaning cooperatives in the Bay Area. Aryeh Shell is the program director of Community Engagement at Somos Mayfair. She has worked for over a decade as a popular educator, organizer, and theater artist.

Everyone Has the Right To... | Vol. 16, No. 1 | Spring 2009 | Credits

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California’s Child Exclusion Law Attacks Women and Children’s Rights

State of California welfare policies are depriving thousands of women and children of their rights to food, clothing, and shelter and endangering their health. The so-called “Maximum Family Grant” deprives newborn children of the very same benefits that their siblings receive because women who give birth to another child while on welfare do not see their benefits increase upon the birth of their new child. This perverse attempt to influence family planning decisions of poor women is in direct opposition to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.”

In 2006, the Women of Color Resource Center (WCRC) initiated a study of the impact of the child exclusion policies on the security and well-being of affected families and on the reproductive decision-making of women on welfare.[1] By every parameter of family security reported on, families with excluded children were less secure than families that had not been capped. Perhaps it was not the intention of the policy-makers to deprive women and children of food, clothing, and shelter and to endanger their health, but that has been the overall effect.

Women whose welfare benefits were capped reported higher levels of family hardship and distress. Their families experienced higher levels of housing and food insecurity; were more likely to have problems paying for transportation and utilities; have a significantly harder time providing diapers and clothing for their children; and are more likely to have taken a child to the hospital in the preceding six months.

Raising Families on $500 per Month
Of the 200 women interviewed (in Alameda, San Joaquin, and Los Angeles counties) nearly 76 percent had monthly household incomes under $1,000, with about a quarter of them living on less than $500 per month. On average, the women had 2.3 children living in households of 4.3 people. Fifty-five of the women surveyed (27.5 percent) reported that they had at least one child excluded from benefits because of the rule.

It is difficult to discover exactly how many children are denied support in California due to the policy because the state does not collect that data. But a General Assistance Office (GAO) study reported that on average 53,417 families per month were capped in 2000—that’s 9.5 percent of California’s caseload and nearly 50 percent of the total families capped nationwide.[2] The report estimated that a two-person family that had an additional child while on welfare in California stood to lose $121 per month in cash assistance. With average welfare grants amounting to $544 per month, that’s a significant reduction of a family’s already limited financial ability to care  for their new child.

In the WCRC survey, 41 percent of the women affected by the Maximum Family Grant rule were Asian, 30 percent Latina, and 24 percent African American—with the rules disproportionately affecting families with lower English language skills, despite a law that requires annual notification of the Maximum Family Grant rules in native languages to those with limited or no English literacy. The Vietnamese-speaking Tran family, for example, did not find out about the rule until after their daughter was born. And without additional support, they were often unable to afford enough food to keep the whole family healthy. Their story, unfortunately, is all too typical of families whose benefits are capped.

Punishing Children to Punish Families
A disturbing find of the study is the effect of the welfare cap on a family’s ability to provide for the basic needs of excluded children. Forty-six percent of affected women reported not being able to adequately feed their families; while 45 percent reported not being able to afford diapers or clothing for their children (as compared to 26 percent of families not affected by the cap). An even more disturbing find is the proportionately higher number of children from affected families who had been to the hospital in the six months prior to the interview—more than 20 percent, as opposed to 15 percent among unaffected families. This clearly speaks to both the heightened vulnerability of these families and the increased burden on social services.

The adoption of the child exclusion policies is one of the many results of a decades-long campaign to stigmatize people on welfare. It’s a campaign often characterized by racial bias, misogyny, and contempt for the poor. In California, advocates and service providers have been fighting the child exclusion policy since its introduction in 1997; and since the early 2000s, a collaborative of racial justice and women’s rights groups, legal advocates, and direct service providers has been working towards a legislative response to the welfare cap. Their work culminated in the 2007 Provide for Every Child (AB 22) bill, introduced in the California legislature by Representative Sally Lieber. The bill aims to revoke the Maximum Family Grant rules on the grounds that the state had reneged on its obligation to enact laws that serve the best interests of children.[3] It makes the argument that a legislative act that excludes poor children from receiving necessary assistance cannot be working in the best interest of those children and violates their basic human rights.

The bill stalled in committee last year and given the dismal state of California’s budget in 2009, is unlikely to pass this year despite support from the Speaker of the House and well-known child advocate, Karen Bass.

No Stimulus for Poor Children
The grim state of California’s coffers is simply a reflection of the nation’s economy and offers little immediate hope. The economic stimulus bill currently under consideration is $40 billion short of what was originally proposed and makes further cuts in food stamps and aid to the unemployed. The only bright spot in the current national social services scene is President Obama’s recent reinstatement of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which publicly recognizes the need for healthcare for young people.

Further lobbying efforts in 2009 are unlikely to yield success. Instead, collaborating organizations are focusing on reinstating benefits for families today, while education and advocacy around the legislation continues. Law students working at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, Calif. are currently reviewing about 300 Maximum Family Grant cases and are also putting together a how-to guide for child advocates to fight such cases. A media strategy by reproductive justice organizations and faith-based groups continues to keep the impact of the policy alive. This is also the perfect moment for communities to support advocacy and social service agencies directly—as well as keeping up pressure on legislators—to ensure that the human rights of California families are not an afterthought, but a central priority of the state.

1.        The study was conducted in partnership with the East Bay Community Law Center, Oakland, St. George’s Health Center, Modesto, California Women’s Law Center, Los Angeles, and Black Women for Wellness, Los Angeles.
2.        Welfare Reform: More Research Needed on TANF Family Caps and Other Policies for Reducing Out-of-Wedlock Births (GAO-01924 9/2001).
3.        The Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 3. “In all actions concerning children undertaken by administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

Linda Burnham is a long-time activist and writer focused on women’s rights and racial equality and a co-founder of the Women of Color Resource Center. Anisha Desai is the executive director of the Women of Color Resource Center.

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Greening for All

The Right to Access Healthy Food

In a mild late-winter afternoon, fifth-graders at Verde Elementary School in North Richmond squat on soggy ground, poking beans into the dirt with thin sticks. They move on to carrots, marveling at the tiny seeds that get stuck on the palms of their hands. Fava beans, bright yellow and orange calendula, and a whole pharmacy of herbs are flourishing in the garden’s rock-rimmed plots.
Last year Verde Partnership Garden produced close to 1000 pounds of vegetables. The students set up a farmers market in front of the school every two weeks. Parents were so eager to buy that they sent orders in with their children, said garden co-coordinator Bienvenida Mesa. North Richmond, like many depressed communities across the nation, has more than its share of liquor stores, but no stores that sell decent, much less organic, produce.

Verde Garden gives much to the school as well as to the community. Teachers work it into lesson plans. Students come for recess or respite and don’t want to leave. Mesa and the other garden coordinator, Cassie Scott, have to gently herd them back inside.

The garden started in 1995, after a group of Laotian immigrants simply began digging there. Hmong and Mien women who went to an ESL class at Verde decided they needed a garden and began hand-tilling the rubbish-filled vacant lot next to the school. Scott worked as a play therapist at Verde at the time.

“I saw a large number of women with hoes working there and within a short time they’d dug up a vacant piece of land next to the football field. And I was inspired,” says Scott.

Modern Diggers
Like the “Diggers” who began farming on Saint George’s Hill in the spring of 1649 and inspired a brief, but radical, chapter in British history, the Laotian women’s act called into question the meaning of “public property.” They exercised their right to land by putting hoe to dirt, and joined Richmond’s deeply rooted and lively gardening tradition.

Other gardeners here have dug on vacant land, but asked permission first. Today, some are finding they need to claim their rights first in the city planning process. Urban agriculture, with its potential to build food security along with community well-being, has hit the public policy agenda. Funds are becoming available, and questions of access and inclusion are raising their heads.
In the early 1900s, the North Richmond area around Verde School was called “Cabbage Patch” for its dozens of truck farms. Victory gardens bloomed around Richmond during World War II, when waves of rural migrants swelled the city’s population to around 100,000. Okies and Arkies and African Americans from the South worked the shipyards and defense plants, and grew their fruits and vegetables.

“Sure, we had gardens all over the city,” says longtime community and environmental activist Lillie Mae Jones. “People had to have gardens so they could survive.” Like today’s urban gardeners, they used techniques such as sheet mulching, composting, and companion planting to raise more and healthier crops.

Today Richmond has about a dozen garden projects, including an urban agriculture class at Richmond High School, several school gardens—at least two of which may be casualties of the school district’s financial woes—and “Lots of Crops.”
North Richmond has upwards of 40 vacant lots that invite illegal dumping and become eyesores and health hazards, according to Saleem Bey of North Richmond Green, which runs Lots of Crops. So far, the group has gotten permission from owners of 10 of those lots to use them. It plans to build raised beds, employ community youth as gardeners, and distribute the produce in the neighborhood—free or at low cost.

“We consider these lots public lands,” Bey says. “We walk by them every day. We think that if you have a need and the land is available, the greater good supercedes ownership. While they are not being used, we have the right to use the land in our community.”

Food Self-Sufficiency
Richmond has been known for crime and violence, poverty and pollution since the postwar years when industry fled and malls destroyed downtown. “But Richmond could be the most food self-sufficient urban community in the U.S.,” says Park Guthrie, who works with the nonprofit Urban Tilth and the  5% Local Coalition, which wants to see 5 percent of west Contra Costa County’s food grown locally. “We have a climate that lets us grow year-round, a number of agrarian traditions, lots of open space and public officials who are interested,” says Guthrie.

Richmond elected a Green mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, in 2006, and she and her allies on the City Council express active interest in the prospect.

“All our development has to produce an equitable society and we have everything here to go forward,”  says City Council member Jeff Ritterman. “And we have the California Endowment being interested in Richmond for a 10-year investment, and I think they’ll be interested in this.”

City planners see the newly minted Richmond Greenway as a prime site for urban gardens. The Greenway runs a mile up an old railroad right-of-way, past cyclone fences and boarded-up windows, broken-down factories and neat bungalow homes. Near the west end of the trail, the Lincoln School Garden and Lincoln Community Garden make use of the Greenway’s wide swath of open space.

At the east end, Khmhu immigrants—who like the Hmong and Mien come from the hill country in Laos—raise eggplants and peppers, cilantro, cucumbers, squash, and beans. Father Don McKinnon and Sr. Micaela O’Connor of the Catholic Church’s Khmhu Pastoral Mission helped them work through the city’s bureaucracy to get permission to use the land—a process that seemed odd to the Khmhu.

“In my country, when you want to garden, you just find some place, cut down the trees and plant,” says Kham Sousamphan. “We don’t have fences.” Her smile says she found the idea of fenced lands not so much offensive as ridiculous.
Now staffers from city agencies and nonprofits are working with Friends of the Richmond Greenway (FORG) under a planning grant from the National Park Services’ Groundwork Program—and some community activists are getting nervous. The history of the Greenway project itself is feeding their anxiety.

When she was head of Richmond’s Neighborhood Coordinating Council in the late 1980s, Lillie Mae Jones started an organization called CYCLE (Community Youth Council for Leadership and Education). Every summer, CYCLE gave young people small stipends for environmental learning and service. In 1999, CYCLE got $1.9 million in grants to begin developing the Greenway.

“We did all the footwork,” says Jones—but she fell ill, and while she was in a convalescent home, the project moved forward and left her behind.

“When the Greenway opened in 2007, I found out about the dedication by accident,” she says. Now Doria Robinson from the 5% Local Coalition is the only person from the neighborhoods near the Greenway who sits on the steering committee for the planning project.

“As FORG,  we’ve struggled along as volunteers for years,” says the group’s co-chair, Cheryl Maier. “We’ve worked with the neighborhood councils, which are supportive, but taking on green issues is difficult for them. They’re organized around issues of safety, crime, and property valuation.”

Gardens and open space can be attractive amenities that boost property values, according to a 2006 study done by New York University. Property values went up as much as 9.4 percent over five years in neighborhoods next to well-kept community gardens in the Bronx—and low-income areas benefited most from the gardens.

This means Richmond will need to move carefully to be sure the Greenway doesn’t turn into “a Roman road to gentrification,” says Robinson. The Romans first built roads and made other “public improvements” in areas they conquered or hoped to conquer.
“Communities like mine deserve greenways and open space,” Robinson says, “but when we’re moving forward with greening we can’t get myopic. We have to be clear that we’re working for the people who live here, not doing things that will end up moving them out and moving in people with more means.”

A real commitment to “greening for all” will involve patient work in the neighborhoods to draw people in and be sure they have a meaningful voice in land use planning. History suggests another path as well, the one taken by the Hmong and Mien women at Verde School. From the 1400s to the mid-1600s, Europe’s landed gentry gradually “enclosed” or privatized public lands that had been used for grazing and farming. People who depended on those lands for survival launched struggles to reclaim them. The Diggers chose direct action against the gentrification of their time: they began to dig and plant, hoping to overturn society with the turning of the soil.

Marcy Rein and Clifton Ross live in Richmond’s cooperative housing complex, Atchison Village.  Marcy was most recently a communications specialist for the ILWU and is now a freelance writer and editor.  Clifton Ross is a videographer, poet, and essayist.  He teaches at Berkeley City College. His newest book is “Translations from Silence” published by Freedom Voices.

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