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Q&A with Anthony Iton, senior vice president of the California Endowment's Building Healthy Communities program

Oct 4, 2019

Anthony Iton is the senior vice president of the Building Healthy Communities program at the California Endowment. Iton spoke with Interact for Health about grassroots community engagement efforts to promote health-related policy change.

Interact for Health: Could you explain more about the California Endowment's goals?

Iton: Our mission is to improve the health status of all Californians and to increase access to health care for low-income Californians. We approach our mission primarily through the social determinants of health. We recognize health is generally a product of people's opportunity, and opportunity is shaped by policy. We help organize low-income communities so they can participate more effectively in shaping priorities in their communities.

Interact for Health: Could you tell me a brief story that illustrates the effect of your work in the local community?

Iton: Fresno, California, is a great example. It sits in one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States and we were able to help increase equity in park investments across the city. Northern Fresno has five times as many parks per capita as southern Fresno and we helped organize members of the southern Fresno community—most of whom were low-income and many of whom were non-English speaking immigrants—to get $5 million in state bonding funds. That money helped to build new parks. We also worked with community members to help them pass an initiative to create a sales tax to invest in new parks and park improvements.

Interact for Health: What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Iton: I'm most proud of a policy agenda put forward by Central Valley, Fresno, Los Angeles, and Oakland to cut school suspensions and expulsions in half because of its impact on young black and Native American men. Study after study after study, including research from World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has shown social conditions are a more powerful driver of health than health care, which means education policy is health policy. So we supported their agenda and were able to make significant policy changes, including seven new statewide bills, to help school districts throughout the state begin adopting new disciplinary strategies like restorative justice that do not rely on suspending and expelling children.

Interact for Health: What lessons have you learned through your work?

Iton: The big lesson for us has been that policy is important, but it's not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is building a critical mass of social, political and economic power in communities to permanently change the political landscape and allow good democracy to be good for everyone's health. To do that and improve health status for low-income communities of color that have been victimized by racism and other forms of discrimination, we have to invest in what we call the ABCs: Agency; Belonging; and Conditions. Agency is about building power. Belonging is about changing a narrative of exclusion into one of inclusion. Conditions is about resetting the landscape to create opportunities.

Interact for Health: What about your work excites you most?

Iton: I'm not a religious person, but when I work with low-income people who are finding their power and their voice, I consider that to be my church and I feel humbled and privileged to be able to work with people in righting inequity and advancing justice and health. I do such fulfilling work that it feels like a calling and less like a job. 

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