North Lawndale native brings Harvard cred back to the neighborhood

January 13, 2011

By Gabriel Spitzer

Download Story
(WBEZ / Gabriel Spitzer)
Dr. Joseph West brings his crusade against diabetes to South St. Louis Avenue, a few blocks from home.

For a kid growing up in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood, getting to college is a big deal. Getting a Harvard doctorate is practically unheard of. But what makes Joseph West unique is that after he got that elite degree, he moved right back to the harsh streets of his old neighborhood.

Now he works in the very homes of his neighbors, in the belief that healing a community begins with improving its health.

When they started knocking on doors, Joseph West's team of health workers were in stiff competition with the Jehovah's Witnesses and the census.

Now, the team has the blocks of North Lawndale largely to themselves.

They're out to knock on at least 2,500, count the people affected by diabetes, and enroll them in a large study.

Today they're on South St. Louis Avenue, following up with Michael Hudson.

CAMP: You been taking your blood sugar and everything? HUDSON: Yeah, it was 87. CAMP: Oh, that's wonderful!

North Lawndale, like other poor, black neighborhoods in Chicago, has a disproportionate share of chronic disease.

Joseph West is an epidemiologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital

He and his team are trying to mobilize a whole culture around health, starting person by person.

SHEPHERD: So we want to know what made the difference. HUDSON: Jay’s potato chips. SHEPHERD: So you're learning one thing about not snacking last night, your sugars will be better in the morning time. So that's another thing we can add to your action plan.

The early survey results are sobering.

Like Hudson, more than one in four people surveyed have diabetes – three times the national rate – and at least that many more are at high risk.

These aren't just data to Joseph West – this is his neighborhood. His family.

WEST: Essentially I actually live down the street. I live on the other end of St. Louis, down there. And my mother lives four doors down. At one point, my family lived on four different houses on St. Louis.

West grew up in a poor family, steeped in the causes of the 1960s.

He got himself into college … flunked out … clawed his way back in.

And he wound up working on a big public health study in Chicago, run by a guy named John Holton.

Holton now heads the Better Boys Foundation in North Lawndale.

HOLTON: Joe is a kind of guy who seems very stoic, but he's got a great, easy smile, laughs from a very deep place in his body. You are very comfortable when you're with Joe West.

The two men shared a love of chess and jazz.

And Holton nurtured another passion in West.

HOLTON: He really wants to see a level playing field. And a level playing field begins with one's health.

Mentors like Holton helped West send out 11 grad school applications.

Ten were rejected.

His one acceptance letter came from Harvard.

It was a triumph for West … but not his last big battle.

Harvard brought culture shock and money pressures … and then devastation when his little brother was arrested for murder.

WEST: I wanted to quit, and I actually did quit once. But it was the community that embraced me and said, we need you. You can do more for us with a degree than you can without it.

He says once he got that degree, there was no question of going anywhere but North Lawndale – a place he loves, and also tries to be realistic about.

WEST: To be quite honest it’s mixed, right? I feel a tremendous obligation. But then you get a little mixed feelings when you're in your backyard and you’re playing with your son, there's gunfire a block away on the alley and you have to pick your son up and run in the house, so. It's a delicate walk.

Perhaps the central lesson he's learned has to do with the connections between how a neighborhood gets like that, and the health of its people.

WEST: So part of this is trying to figure out how you build that sense of community around this small issue of diabetes, which feeds into this bigger issue. Access to not just medical care but access to food, recreation, et cetera. The things that improve anybody's quality of life.

It’s clear that West isn't the first person to make these connections.

WEST: OK. 1600 block of Hamlin …

That block of Hamlin where the team is heading next is significant.

Its north end is where, in 1966, Martin Luther King moved in and put North Lawndale at the center of the civil rights movement.

WEST: You know King said one of the greatest fights for equality is that of health and well-being. And we have a community where we're trying to do just that.

Adjacent to King's old address, that fight continues … block by block and door by door.

Dr. Joseph West says he can't imagine working anywhere else.

 

Read more about the Block by Block North Lawndale.

You can learn about Joseph West's memoir, "Trod the Stony Road: A Young Man's Journey from the Mississippi to the Charles."

West's project is part of the broader project of the Sinai Urban Health Institute.

Music Button: Zeb, "The Rude Boy Style", from the CD The Sound of Rhythm & Culture, (ESL)