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A research project at Penn was recently given a grant of $1.4 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop methods of preventing and managing chronic diseases.

The goal of the project is to identify existing leaders in the community who are in positions to effect improvements in community health. The program will help these individuals develop leadership and programming skills so that they can build programs that will address the chronic health problems existing among their constituents.

The Penn Prevention Research Center will use this project to expand and support community health leadership within West Philadelphia. They will work in cooperation with the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity as a part of a partnership with the West Philadelphia Promise Zone, a federal initiative meant to provide new opportunities to neighborhoods suffering from endemic poverty.

Currently, the program, headed by Penn professor of family medicine Frances Barg, is assembling its first group of leaders.

“We sent out notifications to each of the organizations that are affiliated with the Promise Zone, and we invited leaders from each of those organizations to participate. We’ve now got applications from a number of those agencies and are now in the process of selecting the first cohort,” Barg said.

Residents in the West Philadelphia neighborhoods that make up the Promise Zone like East Parkside, Mantua and Powelton Village suffer from the same types of chronic diseases affecting the larger U.S. population like hypertension, diabetes and obesity, though at much higher levels.

“I don’t know that the specific diseases are different, but the rates are much higher,” said professor of family medicine and community health Peter Cronholm.

As part of this leadership institute, the selected participants will be able to learn various skills considered crucial for improving the capacity of the community to address chronic disease — skills related to program implementation and evaluation. The initiative hopes to connect these community partners with academic mentors so that they can transfuse their expertise throughout the community.

Penn has historically been a force of gentrification in much of the Promise Zone. While the University has spurred much development in the recent decades, it has also been blamed for pushing out lower income residents and destroying neighborhoods to make room for expansion. The Penn Prevention Research Center looks at these types of projects as a way to make up for previous missteps and to build up West Philadelphia’s human capital.

“We have a long history of disappointing the community we serve. I think one of the large initiatives was to really put the department of family medicine and community health at the interface between the health care system and the community, and so I think that was a charge given to our department,” Cronholm said. “For years our department has developed very mature and mutually rewarding partnerships with the community.”

Cronholm and Barg hope that this relationship between Penn and Promise Zone residents will help bring about a more equitable distribution of resources.

“I think this represents a great opportunity to help connect a resource-rich institution with a community that we haven't always done a great job in terms of sharing the resources we have access to. That’s actually very much what this partnership is about,” Cronholm said.

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