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Humboldt Park Health CEO José R. Sánchez on New Humboldt Park Wellness Center, Health Equity, and How The Young Lords’ Health Advocacy Has Inspired His Work

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La Voz del Paseo Boricua sat down with the President and CEO of Humboldt Park Health, José R. Sánchez, for an interview discussing the new plans for a Humboldt Park Wellness Center, lessons from being a health advocate for Black and Brown communities for more than two decades, and the future of wellness in Puerto Rico Town.

Q: What was the inspiration for developing the Humboldt Park Wellness Center? Can you give us an idea of how you envision the wellness center, and what kinds of services it will offer?

A: When you take a look at the health profile of the Humboldt Park community you’re going to see that this community is really affected by a number of preventable and chronic conditions, for example: diabetes, heart failure, obesity, etc.  The inspiration for the wellness center was to try to make a difference in people’s lives and have an impact on the health and wellbeing of our community. There are two parts to impacting the health and wellbeing of our community. The first is addressing the health conditions that are affecting the community and tying that to the  social determinants of health, which is food insecurity, housing, transportation, access to healthcare, having health insurance, etc.  For years we have been studying the impact of hospitals and clinics in communities around the country, and we determined that hospitals only impact the health of their patients by 20% by providing a doctor and prescribing medication.  The other 80% is really about individuals’ lifestyles and those social determinants of health.  So the wellness center is one of the ways we felt we could have a direct impact on the lives of people.  For example the wellness center was envisioned with the idea of prevention and education, so we’ll have spaces to educate our community about how to stay healthy and how to manage existing conditions.  Additionally, in this community many people have knee replacements, hip replacements, and heart attacks, so the center will also be a rehabilitation center.  There will also be a pool, which will be accessible to nearby CPS schools. We have also been very conscious about the brutal winters that we have here, so we designed an indoor track for running at the top of the building.  We will have spaces for kids to play and exercise, and the concept was to create a wellness center that will be a family destination for the Humboldt Park community.  The wellness center is just phase one of a master wellness development project for the Humboldt Park community using the hospital resources to leverage growth, stability, and health in this community.  

Q: How does the new Humboldt Park Wellness Center fit into the objective of Puerto Rico Town?

A: In my opinion there are two main ingredients that create the existence of communities with the objective to have a vibrant and productive community.  The two main ingredients are; health and education.  In terms of health we want Puerto Rico Town to serve to promote the health and well being of the community.  Additionally, we know health is a crucial component that supports education.  If you do not have health your learning will be affected.  If you merge the two concepts you can support a well off, healthy, educated community, which we’ll call Puerto Rico Town.

Q: You have a long history in community health care as the former executive director of Lincoln Medical Center, and now as the President and CEO of Humboldt Park Health.  Throughout the past two decades, what have been your guiding principles in your work to provide health care particularly in majority Black and Brown communities?

A: In 1977 when I finished college there were only 5% of Puerto Ricans in the United States who had a college degree, so I saw my role as someone who actually wanted to be a leader in the Latino underserved communities in New York City and I worked in the most dangerous communities in New York City.  I spent almost five years working at Brookdale Hospital Medical Center, and then from there I went to the South Bronx to Lincoln Medical Center, which is where the large Puerto Rican community was.  I felt that it wasn’t just enough to get a job and be an Executive, but it was important to me to have a commitment to my community.  Of course Lincoln Hospital has a great history because The Young Lords in the late 60’s took over the hospital demanding equality and better health for the Puerto Rican community at that time.  What was helpful to me was the history, because those struggles by the Puerto Rican community paved the way for me to end up as the CEO of Lincoln Hospital.  It was quite interesting to look at the history of the Bronx at that time, because remember that I mentioned to you that there were not many Puerto Ricans who graduated from the school that had college degrees, so after The Young Lords took over Lincoln Hospital they couldn’t find a single Puerto Rican in the city of New York who met the qualifications to run the hospital as CEO, and they selected a Dominican Doctor.  So my focus has always been in two roles; one is to lead the organization, but also to be an advocate of the community that I represent.  So my history started in New York and then I worked for the City government, but it was always understanding two concepts: one is that there is a connection between politics and healthcare, because policies dictate how healthcare will be manifested, so I embraced that from day one of my career.  Early on in my career there were a lot of concerns about bilingual bicultural services to the Latino community, and actually Puerto Ricans took the lead on bilingual, bicultural programs in New York City.  At that time we created mental health services that were bilingual and bicultural.  I had one of the units at the hospital that was monolingual, everyone who worked there spoke Spanish.  There was a necessity to embrace the community by putting ourselves at the same level.  Although I have been CEO of five different hospitals I never see my role as strictly a CEO, but it’s to go beyond the boundaries of my work responsibilities.  When I came to Chicago in 2010 they were looking for a CEO to turn around Norwegian Hospital from bankruptcy.  I resigned from a very comfortable role as CEO of Lincoln Hospital to come to Humboldt Park.  Walking through the community of Humboldt Park, what attracted me was the Puerto Rican spirit on Division Street, looking at the flags, looking at the names of the stores, the activities that  were going on.  It was similar to the South Bronx but Humboldt Park had a stronger essence of identity with the Puerto Rican community, and in New York the Puerto Rican community was a little bit more diluted.  When I got here in 2010 the Governor Pat Quin announced a $3.5 billion cut to the medicaid program, and the majority of our patients are medicaid recipients, so I forgot that I was the CEO of the hospital and I became a community organizer.  I contacted José López, Jaime Delgado, and other leaders here and they helped me to organize a protest in Springfield.  It’s about the practicality of the situations you are in.  I could not afford to be sitting here with a suit and tie. I needed to be a community organizer and we did that.  My approach to the kind of work I have done is about understanding politics, being pragmatic/practical, being flexible and adapting to circumstances, and not following traditional roles at all.  My approach also has to do with arriving to New York at 15 years of age by myself with 20 dollars and I finished high school on my own, I finished college on my own, I went to graduate school on my own, and during that period there were times I didn’t have a place to sleep and there were times that I didn’t have money to eat.  I ate for a very long time on 25 cents.  I could only afford a 15 cent slice of pizza and a 10 cent small coke to the point that one day they took my cholesterol level, and it was very high from that diet.  I understand poverty, I understand what is struggling to make ends meet.  I haven been successful in my career, because I was able to work from the history of who I was and use what I have today to help other people.  I remember working with Clemente to employ 25-30 students at the hospital and pair them with professionals in the fields they were interested in.  I think many of us who are leaders forget that creating opportunities for people is one of the best things you can do.  As a Puerto Rican man in a position of so called power and influence I will use whatever power and influence I have to support this generation of Puerto Ricans and Latinos.  

Q: In a recent interview with Block Club Chicago you said that “the wellness center is the first part of a six-phase project aimed at putting hospital land to better use because the hospital has a significant number of empty lots in our area, some as big as a full city block”?  It is no secret that with the hypergentrification taking place in Humboldt Park right now long term (mainly Black and Brown) residents are struggling to maintain their housing.  How will Humboldt Park Health’s project for better land use take into account the longtime residents of Humboldt Park being pushed out with the rising costs of housing and property taxes?

A: The master plan for the whole campus development calls for 300 units of affordable housing.  That certainly will create an impact in restraining gentrification and the displacement of the people who live here.  Right now although that is in the master plan we are actually hoping to have the creation of the first 40 units of affordable housing even sooner.  I am working with Chuy Garcia and Congressman Davis to secure a meeting with the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Washington to talk about the 300 units of affordable housing, and how the federal government could help us.  The objective is really getting the funds, because we have the land to begin that, but we need funds to build the housing. So, those are the plans for keeping our community legacy here without being displaced. 

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