The Cities of Opportunity Mayors’ Institute brings a cohort of mayors and their teams together for a year to look at the root causes of health inequities and share innovative approaches to address them. In 2023, the cohort is focusing on how infrastructure, land-use planning, and the built environment impact health equity. During a convening in Houston, TX, Mayor Shawn Patterson-Howard of Mount Vernon sat down with NLC to share their Mayors’ Institute experience.
National League of Cities: How does participating in the Cities of Opportunity Mayors’ Institute impact your ability to improve health and equity outcomes for residents of Mount Vernon?
Mayor Shawn Patterson-Howard: Being a mayor often makes you crisis responsive. But Cities of Opportunity allows you to zoom out. Not just to look at the challenges, but really pull out and take a 50,000-foot view, to look at the whole landscape of policies, systems, and environmental change.
NLC: Has participation allowed you to bring together disparate groups in the community, or are there clearer communication channels even within City Hall than before?
SP-H: Absolutely. City government is often siloed. And then when you look in the community, dealing with longstanding legacy and generational issues requires much more than just a government’s response.
Many of the projects that we’re working on in the Cities of Opportunity Mayors’ Institute are very complex and require lots of funding. They’re not things that you’re going to fix in six months. Bringing those funders, engineers, and technical experts to the table is something that you don’t do every day in government, but this makes us focus on it. Having homework, having a learning cohort, and having to come back to our meetings with deliverables keeps us from circling the drain.
NLC: What’s been the highlight of your participation in the Cities of Opportunity program so far?
SP-H: As we sit with different cities, we realize that we’re not alone in dealing with these longstanding complex challenges. Other cities might have already benchmarked some best practices and might be down the road on some projects that you’re looking to work on.
I would say another a-ha moment is that as a leader, you don’t feel like you have the luxury of time. So many of these issues are longstanding, and your constituents want answers and changes right away.
But really take the time, make sure that what you’re doing is realistic, be honest with the community about how long it will take, what challenges you’ll have to face getting there, and get the community buy-in. It’ll help you go further in a much more sustainable way.
NLC: How does the Cities of Opportunity Mayors’ Institute help residents of Mount Vernon lead longer, healthier lives?
SP-H: We’re dealing with major issues around water infrastructure and air quality. We have our 10550 zip code where life expectancy is lower, unnecessary hospitalizations are frequent, and we have much higher rates of chronic disease.
So, as we focus on our built environment and ensuring that our community is more walkable and bikeable, that we have green spaces for people to exercise in, that we’re dealing with issues of climate, and we are changing the infrastructure in our city, we expect to improve life expectancy throughout the entire community. We want to ensure that we’re making changes using our data to make sure that all our residents have equitable access to healthcare as well as healthy living options, safety, and good air quality.
NLC: The challenges of both achieving health and racial equity are complex and layered. What are you experiencing first-hand in Mount Vernon?
SP-H: Mount Vernon is a community that is approximately 90% black and brown. It is a community that has been under-resourced, redlined, relined, and disinvested in. We have a crumbling infrastructure, and we don’t have the financial resources or the staff bandwidth.
I don’t want to say capacity, because when you say capacity, people don’t think you have the capability. It’s not that. We just don’t have enough engineers, sewer experts, health experts, grant writers, and more to take advantage of so many available opportunities.
So, partnering with the National League of Cities really adds to the bandwidth of our city. It helps us implement the change that we know will change the trajectory and health outcomes of residents in Mount Vernon.
This is multilayered, many of these problems did not happen in the past five years, they have been present for 50 years. We’re learning how to pull together all the expertise that we need to find real, sustainable solutions to these challenges. We’re excited to be here, and we’re really grateful for this opportunity.
Cities of Opportunity Learning Labs
The Cities of Opportunity initiative turns city leaders into health leaders. This Learning Lab webinar series focuses on finding real solutions to the complex challenges of addressing health and equity within your communities. These candid, peer-led discussions provide an entry point for those engaged in advancing health equity at the local level.
Next event: Connecting Funding Streams to Improve Equitable Outcomes
Wednesday, August 23, 2023 at 2-3pm ET