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A Matter of Health: UT researchers gather with Austin residents to address solutions for healthcare disparities

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As high-rise townhomes and trendy restaurants pop up along the narrow streets of East Austin, conversations about the adverse impact of gentrification continue to escalate. But there’s another pressing matter that dovetails with the city’s burgeoning affordability crisis: healthcare.

To delve deeper into this topic, scholars, nonprofit professionals and Austin residents came together at the Community Engagement Center’s Front Porch Gathering event last April at Austin Community College. The series of events are designed to leverage university research and resources to decrease economic disparities in the city’s underserved neighborhoods.

The featured speaker was Kristina Brown, cofounder of Counter Balance: ATX, a nonprofit that works to create positive social change through policy, community-based programs and resources.

“The connection between gentrification and access to healthcare is an important one,” Brown said to the crowd.

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Nonprofit co-founder Kristina Brown leading a community-wide conversation on health disparities in Austin’s underserved neighborhoods

During her talk, Brown explained how institutionalized racism erodes standards of living in economically vulnerable neighborhoods, leaving residents exposed to long-term health risks.

“Counter Balance: ATX’s alternative is to build a sustainable structure where essential medical services are provided,” Brown explained. “Community taking care of community will be fundamental to the solution for mental health and healthcare access here in Austin.”

Audience members voiced similar concerns with healthcare access. Many of them had attended previous Front Porch Gathering events, which provide a space for them to share their individual experiences and explore potential solutions in breakout sessions. The goal of the gatherings is to empower community members to enact change in their neighborhoods.

“My background is in nursing, so I am drawn to conversations about health and health disparities,” said Elle Worsham, who has lived in Austin for three years.

“There are a lot of stigmas that surround provider-patient healthcare. There’s also a snowball effect at play: someone doesn’t have access to housing, they don’t have access to food, and then they don’t have access to healthcare. My experience in the hospital plays into my wanting to become part of the conversation about how to empower people who are oppressed.”

During the event, attendees divided into small groups to discuss healthcare challenges and brainstorm ways to level public access to medical needs. Facilitators from local nonprofits and UT Austin used questions to guide conversations. Some of their questions linked healthcare access to racial demographics, life expectancies and even the
school-to-prison pipeline.

“We want to talk about the infrastructure around healthcare, but also around access to mental wellness services and resources,” said Virginia Cumberbatch, director of
the Community Engagement Center. “Our city is changing. With gentrification may come some resources, but are they the right resources to make sure traditionally underserved and marginalized communities are staying healthy? We want to understand how different parts of our population here in Austin are affected.”

Although it will take some time, Cumberbatch believes these city-wide conversations will lead to sustainable changes. “We think it’s critical to work alongside the community to identify resources and pursue systemic change together,” Cumberbatch adds. “Without a community voice informed by lived experiences, we miss the opportunity to build intentional, comprehensive and sustainable change. We hope efforts like the Front Porch Gatherings will spark more dynamic dialogue and strategic solution building.”