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Event Recap | Women Transforming Local Communities | 2.17.2022

On February 17, HC3 hosted Women Transforming Local Communities as part of it’s the Role of Women in Health Care Series. Laurie McGraw facilitated the conversation, exploring how the panelists discovered their leadership potential and have been able to drive change in their communities through their specific areas of focus.

Featured Panelists: Ayesha Jaco, Executive Director, West Side United

Selma Sims, CEO, Gardeneers

Linda Xochitl Tortolero, President and CEO, Mujeres Latinas en Accion


Laurie McGraw, Senior Vice President, American Medical Association and Host, Inspiring Women with Laurie McGraw Podcast

Watch the Recap | Link to video

Event Recap


Ayesha: I spent a most of my childhood in an area with the lowest life expectancy. At West Side United, we aim to decrease the life expectancy gap in our community. As one navigates different areas around Chicago, there are stark differences around resources, grocery stores, schools, and so on. West Side United is focused on channeling the right resources to areas in most need and to cultivate partnerships and commitments from businesses to hire and invest in these communities.

Selma: At Gardeneers we provide customized school gardening on the South and West sides. These communities have been pushed to the wayside and advancing equity is about filling the gaps where people will accept our help – you don’t want to force yourself on them. Access to healthy food is a large contributor to the 14-year death gap – sometimes referred to as the life expectancy gap between the central loop and west side neighborhoods – which is often exacerbated by health-related issues such as hypertension, diabetes, high blood pressure, and others. Many people assume the death gap is solely because of gun violence, but data verifies that most of these deaths are actually health related.

Gardeneers focuses specifically on outreach to youth. When young people in our programs increase their vegetable intake by one portion per week, it enables them to be more open-minded to try new foods, especially as they get older. We do not sell our products, instead we set up farm stands locally and prioritize access to those in the local communities. We are filling a gap because large chain grocery stores have closed in our neighborhoods. By educating or communities, especially the next generation, we are addressing the needs of the community. Our hope is to instill a sense of urgency to others to support this work and bring back grocery stores to help our community thrive.

Linda: At Mujeres we provide services for survivors of domestic violence and assault, as well as assistance for parents who need support. We also provide supervision for safe visits and exchanges for those who have court mandated visits. Additionally, we offer leadership training and an entrepreneurship program for survivors to become more economically dependent which allows them to have choices for how to be safe and thrive on their own.

There has been a rise in domestic violence across the globe and we are doing as much as we can to address this issue with our services locally. Domestic violence is one of the root causes of community violence. Those who have been violent at home are more likely to be violent in their community. Domestic violence services are vital for public safety, and we need to do more as a city and state. Services for women and girls are underinvested in our society – especially for women of color. Studies have shown women of color face more challenges in fundraising related to philanthropic efforts.

What did it take to become the leader you are today? When did you know you had this leadership capability?

Linda: Since I was a young person, I was always told I had a voice. My parents instilled that in me. I am an attorney by background but wanted to go into nonprofit and advocacy because I have a voice that can be heard, and I knew I could help others to get the attention, services, and respect that they deserve.

Selma: I went to military school in Chicago’s Bronzeville. I wanted to be a leader and needed a system to guide me. While working with the Chicago Parks District for 10 years, I learned how I wanted to lead and who I wanted to lead by seeing how important youth development was in society. I studied horticulture at Ohio State and have seen firsthand how important food access is in the neighborhoods I have lived in.. Gardeneers has aligned my desire to lead, work with youth, and focus on agriculture.

Ayesha: My father taught me that you should “make your community better than you found it.” He would do things like open up a karate school in a neighborhood which then had an impact on youth development. I found similar opportunities through an interest in dance and leadership roles in the arts which allowed me to impact youth and eventually led me to work in social services. And like Selma’s comments around the death gap, reading The Death Gap by David Ansell was very impactful to me, and he is actually one of the founders of West Side United where I now have the privilege to work.

Why do we need your organizations? Why aren’t public resources and infrastructure enough?

Selma: Agriculture education is not a priority in urban areas, so this is a critical need for organizations like Gardeneers. Most people do not think of cities as agricultural settings and not all are well informed about the supply chain as it applies to agriculture. Legislation exists to ensure agriculture education is funded with FFA and 4-H, which are almost 100 years old. In Chicago we only have two educational facilities related to agriculture education. The question is: How are we reaching youth who want and need to know about these systems that impact their lives? The budget for agriculture is not prioritized, which is why we are needed to fill that gap.

Linda: There is a fundamental problem in our society that we do not value women and girls enough; this is reflected in our investments. Many are still very confused about and do not understand the prevalence of gender-based violence. We still live in a society where men feel they have power over women. We need to make sure people understand generational trauma, and that it is something we carry with is in life. We need to think about how to address misogyny in our culture, and how we can invest more to eliminate generational trauma in our society. When we are able to shift that paradigm, I hope people will be more honest about what they have experienced.

Crisis intervention is absolutely important, but education in schools and prevention continues to be underfunded. Overall, we need to do better in terms of our investments and priorities.

Why aren’t the health systems enough to deal with the life-expectancy gap?

Ayesha: The issues that have led us to this current state of affairs are spread across multiple sectors. At West Side United we have commitments from local health care institutions to look at what’s happening in their own backyards. If we can divert 1 percent of their hiring to West Side residents, it can support the individuals in ways that they can purchase property and further invest in the community.

We have to think about what we are doing to make sure there is an excellent standard of care for all, so that if, for example, you are an African American woman, you can go to the hospital in your community and get the best care.

It requires an all-hands-on-deck approach to deal with these issues that impact the life expectancy gap. For example, recently an Aldi grocery store closed almost overnight and created a food desert with no other options for residents. We were connected with the local alderman and residents to stand up, and call upon Aldi to do better. We worked with the city as well to put the request out for another grocery business to invest here to fill this void. A comprehensive approach like this is required to support people in the community when they need it.

We need all sectors and industries, including education, public safety, housing, and health systems to be at the table to collectively address these issues.

How do you engage people to participate in your activities?

Selma: There has been an uptick in people wanting to grow their own food. People will see us tending to gardens in our Gardeneers shirts, and approach us to ask for more information. Working with the schools is also an important partnership for us to reach youth. Our farm stands provide visibility within communities as well because residents can see what we are providing and ask questions about our work. We also do cooking demos where community members lead workshops on how to use the food that is grown. We engage people just by being there and showing up to where they are. We are there to learn and support where we can, and they see that.

Throughout the pandemic, how has Mujeres been able to engage with stakeholders?

Linda: We have been facilitating a Latina leadership program for 30 years, where women complete a program to learn the fundamentals of running meetings, how government works in the U.S., and how to make action happen. Many leaders who have graduated from the program become Community Health Workers (CHWs)/ Promotoras. We have used this training leadership model for vaccine outreach to get our community vaccinated. When we do outreach, people engage us with other challenges they have, such as food insecurity, domestic violence, and challenges to their children’s well-being. This opens the door for us to better understand the needs of individuals in these communities, and how we can help.

We also made a point to speak with our own staff around any concerns for return-to-work measures. We have frontline workers and with that we need to be aware and treat them as such. When we reopened our doors, we had to ensure we did it safely. The hybrid work-model will be long-term because we need to offer flexibility as we are working with people who have opportunities in other sectors.

How have you led and responded to the realities of uncertainty but continued urgency? How have you had the stamina?

Ayesha: In March of 2020 we had just unveiled our 1,000-day plan and a few days later we were dealing with the onset of pandemic. We had to pivot and determine what needed our immediate attention and really listen to the community. The food pantries had a 500 percent increase in need for food they were providing. So, we were able to turn around emergency grants to support them. We also provided emergency support services and funding for small businesses as they dealt with staffing issues and other challenges. We had to revise the administration of career pathways programs and provided stipends for those who could not work. And we were called upon by Mayor Lightfoot to be part of Racial Rapid Response Team for the city.

Today, we are still operating in a hybrid work environment. We instituted a self-care day for the team on the last Friday of every month. Over the last year, we have reengaged in some of our original workflows, and we have dialed back from some of the stricter COVID-19 protocols and are getting back to what we were previously working towards.

How did you keep your energy up during the ebbs and flows of what you’ve been dealing with?

Selma: I love what I do. I love who I do it for, and who I do it with. No generation loves a younger generation like millennials love Gen-Z. So, constantly reminding myself of the why and who keeps me motivated.

Linda: We closed our offices for five weeks during the recent Omicron surge, so I am happy to be back in the office because I really like people. Being around people, especially with loved ones and family, is very important and grounding. When you do this work, it is important to not be isolated.

Ayesha: My kids are a lot of motivation. And dance is my way of unplugging and having a creative outlet for me to recharge.

What advice can you share?

Ayesha: Find ways to recharge. What we have done has been amazing, but it has taken a toll. It’s important to step back sometimes, sharpen your tools, reflect, and then be able to move forward with knowledge that you are staying true to your mission.

Selma: Remember grace, as we are all living through a global pandemic. As much as we hold ourselves to a certain standard, remember to give those we work with grace.

Linda: Self compassion. When you are a woman of color leader, it can be very lonely sometimes. Find your friends and cheerleaders that you can reach out to for support. And provide them with the love and help you would want in return.


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