Since March of 2020, when pandemic precautions forced the close of Ohio schools and affected the health and income of thousands of families, a group of tireless Cleveland volunteers has distributed over 20,000 breakfasts, lunches, and snacks to local parents and children. They also dispense monthly supplies of provisions like hand sanitizer, tissues, soap, and face masks, as well as information on supplements children need daily to fuel brain growth and development.
While this goes on in nearby neighborhoods, our city is in the midst of a revived civil rights movement. Thanks to social media and cell phone cameras, acts of racism and systemic injustice have been thrust front and center, showcasing the struggles Black Americans experience every day. From small towns to big cities, protests are ongoing, fueled by people who want to address and remedy the complex disparities which underscore life in America.
Not only are Black people more at risk for police brutality, as witnessed recently with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, they are, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, at higher risk of dying from heart disease, obesity, stroke, cancer, pneumonia, COVID-19. They also have disproportionately higher infant mortality rates than their white counterparts.
The list goes on and on.
Yvonka Marie Hall has long refused to sit back and do nothing to counteract these problems. In 2011, she established the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition (NEOBHC) with a mission of addressing “disparities and inequities in education, employment, housing, health and the impact on African American health disparities by working to empower, educate and advocate for under-served populations.”
In 2015, NEOBHC became a non-profit 501(c) 3 organization and is the first in Ohio “dedicated to addressing disparities in the Black community.” NEOBHC offers a variety of programs, covering everything from health check-ups and mental health services to food drives, social support sessions, and CPR training.
To Hall, it was a calling to devote her life to helping people: “My mom was murdered in front of myself and my little brothers, and I promised myself that I would use my life to help make a difference in the lives of others.”
Hall turned personal trauma into positive action, amassing a lengthy resume of doing good along the way. Not only is Hall, who has earned a Master’s degree in Public Administration, the executive director of NEOBHC, she is also the co-founder of Cleveland Lead Safe Network, formed to help prevent lead poisoning in our city.
The recipient of many awards, such as the 2019 Emmett Till Courage Award and the 2020 Black Women’s Political Action Committee Leadership Award, Hall has been involved in implementing a syringe exchange harm reduction program, as well as fighting for justice in the Cuyahoga County jail and serving on numerous boards.
Her purpose with NEOBHC is clear: “I founded the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition because over the 25 years of doing health disparities work, they always wanted to lump black people’s needs into the minority arenas, but other groups didn’t have the issues facing my community.”
NEOBHC takes a dynamic approach to the problem of disparities, partnering with other agencies to not only eliminate those disparities, but also to engage in capacity building and community empowerment. The goal of the organization, Hall explains, “is to examine how political and social policies contribute to disparities in the African-American community.”
What sets the organization apart?
“We accomplish this goal by generating discussion and exploring interventions while bringing together local and national experts to assist our communities in the pursuit of health equity. The NEOBHC has a history of creating cutting edge programs designed with the community at heart,” says Hall. “Our recent efforts have included hosting a local conversation on the Department of Justice. These conversations led to the Community Corrective Action Report, which was used to craft the consent decree for the city of Cleveland.”
Hall says that the organization’s “most recent policy initiative involved the lead poisoning crisis and the impact it has on children. More than three years ago, the NEOBHC and the Cleveland Lead Safe Network started meeting with local legislatures to bring awareness to the issue of lead poisoning.” She adds that the conversations culminated in “the crafting of Ordinance 990-17,which was used as a template for the recently passed lead legislation and as a historic first.”
Due to the impact of COVID-19, the organization’s in-person initiatives — health tune-ups, wellness walks, urban CPR classes, women’s meet-ups, and their State of Disparities in the African American Community Conference — have been cancelled. However, presentations, including one on the art of community engagement, have shifted to Zoom. NEOBHC aims to help equip Zoom attendees “with the knowledge to create and advocate for relevant policies at the national, state and local levels,” so that activism and needed change can be carried out in a socially distant way.
One of the many challenges presented during the pandemic is food insecurity — particularly for families with small children who would otherwise have meals provided by the schools.
Understanding “that food insecurity is a big concern in communities of color and although programs exist in the community through the school system, they don’t make special provisions for children or parents and grandparents that are handicapped or under the age of 9”, NEOBHC created the Babies and Brunch Project.
“As an organization that works to address disparities,” Hall says, “we decided to gather food and issue breakfast and lunch during the school closure. Many of the children that we serve receive their only meal at school. Without those provisions, many children would go hungry.”
With Black families disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 virus and Cuyahoga County identified as a hotspot for community spread, Hall shows no sign of slowing down in her mission to help others.
If you are looking to get involved in the fight to save Black lives, now is the time to step up. You can help Hall in her mission in a variety of ways– become a member of NEOBHC, volunteer as a delivery driver, and/or make a donation. Join Hall and devote your life — at least a part of it — to doing the right thing.
18115 Harvard Ave, Cleveland, OH 44128