Black Thought Goes GrassROOTS For Healthy Girls

The Roots' lead man takes initiative in the health of young girls and women

Hip-Hop is often mired in negativity and often shows no signs of goodwill when it comes to the Black community. Or so we think.

The Roots have always been looked up to for the lack of ignorance in their music and oftentimes, Tariq Trotter, barely gets a mention when discussing prolific lyricists in Hip-Hop.

Doesn’t matter.

It’s what Tariq aka Black Thought does when the mic isn’t held in his hand and the band has stopped playing music, that is important to him.

BlackEnterprise.com: What is the GrassROOTS Community Foundation and what inspired you to start the organization?

Black Thought: The GrassROOTS Community Foundation (GCF) is a health advocacy organization that supports, develops, and scales community-driven solutions to the health challenges facing women and girls.

I was inspired to start this because of my friendship with Dr. Janice Johnson Dias who I have known since 1996 when she was in graduate school at Temple University. Dr.  Johnson Dias, who is now a Sociology professor at John Jay College, had been working on issues of health of women and girls — and in 2010 — asked me to join her in raising awareness about what is going on in our communities about health. She laid out for me the ways in which women and girls were dying from breast cancer, suicide and other chronic diseases and explained to me that these things were all connected to obesity and physical inactivity. It was her vision that if we merged the power of hip hop with social science, we can change the way things are.

I was moved by her vision especially since the communities that she was talking about were communities that I had lived in, communities where I still had family. But I must say what really made me say yes was the fact that she kept talking about girls; and I have a daughter now; and the week before my wife Michelle and I were just talking about how important it was for us to give back.

Janice made the issues real for me and though I suspect she would have done it without me, I am glad we decided to do it together. We are the co-founders of GrassROOTS, and with the help of our friends, colleagues and loved ones, GrassROOTS is helping to make communities healthy one city at a time.

There was a charity concert hosted in New Jersey on October 6th. As most folks know, you represent Philadelphia, so what made you decide to host this particular event at The Newark Museum?

We are in Newark because Newark matters to us. GrassROOTS’ work targets ten cities in the US where women and girls experience the highest incidences of obesity, breast cancer, suicide and HIV/AIDS. These are Augusta, GA, Louisville, KY, Memphis, TN, New Orleans, LA, Oklahoma City, OK, Birmingham, AL, Philadelphia, PA, Greensboro, NC, Jackson, MS, and Newark, NJ.

We have hosted two public social events in Philadelphia because that was the site of our first grantee. However, this year we have 3 programs in the Greater Newark area and wanted the public to know about it. Funding from our concert series allows us to provide health programs, workshops, financial and research support to community-based organizations (CBOs) offering services to disadvantaged women and girls. These benefits help us do the work we aim to do.

Our 3 NJ programs are:

H.E.A.L. (Health, Education and Literacy) is a family program that teaches parents and children about the joys and health benefits of yoga and cooking together. The program welcomes parents with children (K-3rd grade) to practice Ancient Kemetic yoga to experience the benefits of increased focus, agility and higher energy: keys to educational and professional achievement. For more information on the program, please visit here.

S.H.A.P.E (Strong, Healthy, and  Powerful Everyday) is an after school program for 9th and 10th grade high school girls at Central High School in Newark, NJ. The program focuses on health literacy, wellness, self-esteem and professional skill development.  Begins Fall 2012. Co-sponsored by HealthCorps, Barnabas Health and the American Heart Association.

SUPER CAMP is a summer day camp for girls 5 to 9 years old that provides a focus on mathematics, science and reading through a cultural lens. Click here for more info.

What motivates you to give back to the community?

My motivation is simple: I am the people we serve and I am from the communities where we do our work. If it were not for community based programs like these I would not be here today. I give back because that is what I was taught and it is what I believe.

Who else is participating in this event?

A wide variety of folks are participating in the event. At the event you can expect to hear great music from me, Malene Younglao, Maya Azucena and Nneka Best. Also, you will hear a welcome from Councilman Ras Baraka who is also the Principal at Central High School where our SHAPE program is located. You will also hear from those who know our work best, our program participants and their families.

We have confirmed the attendance of Senator Ronald Rice and Council President Donald Payne Jr has promised to stop by on his way to another event. Mayor Nutter has also agreed to make his way to us. You will get a rare treat because Dr. Janice Johnson Dias will also address the group and layout GrassROOTS’ mission and work. 9th Wonder and the Roots family will also be in the house.

What are your thoughts on the healthcare system as it pertains to impoverished communities and what do you think it will take to change it for the better?

I think poor folks are the only people who cannot afford—financially and otherwise—to be sick. I think we need more community health programs and we need to develop program that are low-cost.

At GrassROOTS, we develop projects that are accessible and available to everyday people and they are free. We want to inspire folks to claim their health so they can build new systems of care. We like the model used in communities where people work as health workers spreading the message of the importance of health. The current system seems less about health and more about systems—bureaucratic and hard to navigate.

Not precisely sure what it will take to change the system but I am sure that for poor folks, community health education is necessary because it will help create healthier communities. When that happens I am sure that we can begin to imagine and create a new system that helps everyone.

For people who are considering being involved or starting their own organization that wants to do their part in giving back, what advice would you give them as far as organizing and/or running it effectively?

My first piece of advice is to think about sustainability first—begin with the end in mind.  If you were successful, what it would it look like. Next, consider it important to consider collaborations, choose your partners wisely, make sure you share not only a common mission but compatible work styles.

At GrassROOTS we are interested not only in the outcomes but also in the process. Our partners must believe in our mission but they also must be willing to work in a style that honors our mission. In other words, they must be willing to consider all the factors (people, places and systems) that contribute to why our communities are so unhealthy and they MUST be willing to include the voices of the people they serve in their programming.

However, the most important piece of advice is to remember it takes money and resources to make social change. Although we run a non profit, we have had to learn the hard way that we must have a plan for the fiscal health of our organization.

What future plans do you and the Foundation have?

We have a lot happening at the end of the year. We are launching a pilot of our HEAL program in partnership with IHN-the Interfaith Hospitality Network. Through a grant from the Health Care Foundation, we are going to be providing health programming—yoga and healthy cooking classes to residentially insecure and homeless families. This population of folks is really vulnerable and so we want to help them make health a priority even under these harsh conditions.

We are also in our second year of programming at Harding Middle School in Philadelphia. This year we are working at the second level in our model. Last year we focused on our girls and their families. This year we are extending that work to include the community. We will be hosting community conversations and health programming. We know that if we work with our girls and ignore their community, they won’t get healthier, so we are working to draw the community in. We received support for this work from the Princeton Area Community Foundation.

In the late fall, we will begin a full year of health programming at the Early Middle College at Bennett College. Last year we completed a successful pilot and we are anticipating a wonderful first year.

Much of our efforts now is dedicated to fundraising to sustain and support our programs. While we have some support, we need more. We are constantly writing grants. It is our goal to earn a federal grant to support our research, but in addition, we are looking for new partners and sponsors who share our mission and style.

And on February 16, we will host our annual Let’s Move It benefit party in Philadelphia.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know regarding you and/or GrassROOTS Community Foundation?

I would like people to know that we are here and we need their help. We strongly believe that we can create the world we want to live in.

I also want folks to know that this organization has changed the way I see and act in the world. I urge folks to join us in this effort to create a world where all girls can grow up to be healthy women.

Given how much we depend on women to hold our communities together it is the very least we can do.

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