Connecting the dots between health outcomes and environmental exposures

  • August 9, 2021
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  • Deborah Carter McCoy

The Sustainable Growth Coalition members and leadership are standing firm in their commitment to each other and the wider community of environmental professionals. Some recent work includes:

The Best Practice & Learning Lab series offers members and guests the opportunity to explore lessons learned and steps taken to meet the Coalition’s shared vision by way of a facilitated conversation and small discussion groups. Member organization Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota sponsored the first event which focused on sharing steps taken in its first-ever approach to incorporating racial and health equity into its environmental sustainability goals, or ESG.

As a long-time employee of organizations which combine the disciplines of public health and environmental protection, my understanding regarding the impacts of our choices on human health is ever evolving. The science of exposures has become more cellular and the systemic policies which allow disproportionate impacts on people of color have been daylighted. Where does anyone begin to understand, much less act when considering the complex (and sometimes overwhelming) overlaps and impacts of:

  • Human health exposures.
  • Energy production.
  • Manufacturing.
  • Zoning.
  • Transportation options.
  • Housing availability.
  • Jobs access.
  • Park space.
  • Food security.

The social determinants of health cannot be addressed in the proverbial silo. That is why corporations, government entities, and other organizations need to communicate and collaborate for local and global changes. Local projects and initiatives incubated in the home communities of global corporations can be refined and transferred to other locations. In the case of Blue Cross and Urban Roots, a match was made between mission and goals with a focus on prevention through action.

David Miller of Blue Cross and Hayley Ball of Urban Roots joined event attendees for an hour to talk about Incorporating Equity into Enterprise Social Impact, the relationship between their organizations, and the “why” behind the connection. In 2020, Blue Cross committed to:

  • Creating a racial and health equity plan and recognizing environmental justice as a factor for better health outcomes.
  • Collaborating with community groups, including Urban Roots, to address systemic inequities in the community.
  • While yet far from perfect, working to dismantle inequitable structures within the enterprise.

Urban Roots, an organization based in St. Paul, Minn., is engaging under-resourced youth in marginalized communities. The youth are paid for their work in addition to having access to education, training, and work projects that provide service to the community, develop young leaders, and improve health and the environment. The relationship between Blue Cross and Urban Roots is grounded in removing barriers within communities of color that prevent healthy outcomes. Centered on food, the two organizations are joined in the effort to reduce preventable diseases such as high-blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity through access to locally grown fruits and vegetables, culturally specific recipes, and leadership opportunities for young people.

Both David and Hayley shared glimpses from their personal and professional journeys as they acknowledge privilege and experience difference. Both acknowledge that integrating health and racial equity lenses into every decision made within a team or the organization, explicitly recognizing “the other,” is a critical step. Ask, Who is not at the proverbial table and how can their voice be heard and their needs be met? This process shifts perspective and is an essential part of removing systemic inequities.

As the conversation between Hayley and David continued, the chat filled with positive examples from Sustainable Growth Coalition members and guests highlighting ways to incorporate equity into sustainability decisions. Two examples:

  • Best Buy is exploring the outputs of the EJSCREEN to see how they might inform future siting considerations.
  • The University of Minnesota is collaborating with White Earth Tribal Community College on the development of implementation steps for their food sovereignty strategic plan.
  • Allina Health’s Sustainability Steering Committee is applying an “equity, environment, economy” lens to decisions.

These conversations continue beyond the Best Practices & Learning Lab events as attendees make connections, ask questions, and co-develop solutions, creating value for members and, ultimately, changing the world in which we live. The second event, hosted by Allianz Life, was led by Chief Administrative Officer Diane Gates. She shared experiences related to incorporating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) principles into their investment process and policies and offered suggestions on how organizations might apply these principles.