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Everett, Massachusetts, has a new mix of immigrants and new challenges. Here’s how the city is adapting.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

The people of Everett, Massachusetts, did not wait for a crisis to address the hot-button topic of police relations. They dealt with it head-on.

In a year marked by racial violence in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, residents of this city of 42,000 across the Mystic River from Boston held three forums between police and residents. One meeting in June attracted more than 100 people; two other sessions were only for teenagers. "What makes Everett special is being able to have a space to talk about racial issues," says Antonio Amaya, director of La Comunidad Inc., a nonprofit that helps Spanish-speaking immigrants.

Everett has been forced to come to terms with issues of racial justice, immigration and assimilation. In 1990, foreign-born residents accounted for 11 percent of the population; by 2013, they made up 41 percent. The rapid change in the city's ethnic profile has been an impetus for action. Groups from all across the city — local government, police, public schools, health centers, churches, and nonprofits — have come together to examine cultural and racial inequity and how they might affect residents' wellbeing. Partners have worked to defuse racial tension while also taking steps to ensure that all people have an opportunity for good health.

They've looked at ways to remove barriers to healthy lifestyles and address the needs of vulnerable residents, including teens who are homeless, immigrants without documentation, and people re-entering society from prison. The result is that Everett's city and community leaders are able to talk in broad terms about all the factors affecting the welfare of residents. They see health in its totality — everything from the need for more mental health services in schools to securing more quality jobs and affordable, safe homes for struggling residents.

"We realized a long time ago that we need to start talking about health equity, racial justice, and social justice, so all of our residents can be healthy, not just those who have the means to be healthy," says Kathleen O'Brien, director of the Everett Community Health Partnership, a coalition of groups committed to improving health in the city. "We've been working really hard on some really tough issues, and having that noticed on a national scale is just amazing." Everett won a Robert Wood Johnson Community of Health Prize.

A cultural Crossroads

Everett is a compact city, covering just 3.4 square miles. Many working-class residents worry that the escalating real-estate prices in Boston's neighborhoods will push them out, as gentrification spreads across the Mystic River. The local economy could change dramatically: In 2014, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission awarded Wynn Resorts a license to build a $1.6 billion hotel and casino on an empty waterfront site in the city. The project could bring as many as 4,000 jobs to the region.

Many families in Everett can trace their roots to first-wave immigrants from Italy and Ireland. More recent residents have arrived from Central and South America, particularly El Salvador and Brazil, as well as Morocco, Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. On Broadway, the main street that bisects Everett, storefront signs are in Portuguese or Chinese, restaurants serve Salvadoran pupusas as well as Brazilian barbecue, and churches offer Sunday services in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Haitian Creole.

Neighbors who measure their ties to Everett not in years but decades will relay two sad stories that were critical turning points in the city's journey toward becoming a welcoming place.

The first came in 1994, when a Latina sixth grader broke her leg during school. She had no health insurance. "The parents didn't speak English and didn't know that there was a health insurance policy that they could have purchased for $18 a year to cover their daughter during the school day," recalls Jackie Coogan, a retired public school teacher in Everett. Coogan was so disturbed by the incident that she founded the Joint Committee for Children's Health Care in Everett, a nonprofit that helps steer Everett residents, especially newcomers, through the maze of health care. It also connects them to social services offered through its network of more than 30 partnering agencies.

The Joint Committee's staffers offer services in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, French and Italian. They've provided assistance with health insurance, education, and awareness to over 40,000 children and adults. Between August 2014 and July 2015, they enrolled more than 4,500 people in state-provided health insurance.

From tragedy comes progress

The second story involves a lost 12-year-old girl from neighboring Chelsea who drowned in 2004 in the Mystic River. There were signs in English about swimming and safety. The girl spoke only Spanish.

Around the same time, police complaints were mounting, particularly from members of the Brazilian community, who perceived racial profiling with traffic stops. Police Chief Steve Mazzie met with members of the community multiple times. On the heels of these discussions, the department put down in writing — in Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, and Haitian Creole — what people should expect when stopped by police. He also dispatched officers for crash courses in Spanish and Portuguese.

Last June, after protests in Baltimore, Mazzie joined Bishop Robert G. Brown, the African-American chaplain of the police department, in addressing a forum on police relations at Zion Church Ministries. Several people in the older, diverse crowd questioned the department's hiring practices. Of 100 officers, only six were people of color. Mazzie explained how officers were selected and pledged to add more diversity to the force.

"If something did happen in Everett," Mazzie told the crowd, "we'd be able to absorb it and deal with it because we've established long-lasting relationships."

Amaya of La Comunidad says the ongoing conversations on racial issues and police tactics "have not been easy." But they have created a way for people from different communities to discuss sensitive matters. "We have done it and we have improved a lot, but there is more to do," Amaya says.

'Health is so much more'

Race, poverty and health intersect in communities across the nation, and the Everett Community Health Partnership works to address how these issues converge in Everett. Launched a decade ago by Cambridge Health Alliance, the coalition focuses on the links between health and factors such as racism, income, jobs, education, and housing. Everett has high rates of chronic diseases, especially diabetes and hypertension, with rising rates of obesity, particularly among children of color.

"Health is so much more than just healthy eating and active living," says O'Brien, the partnership's director. "It's good jobs. It's housing. It's mental health. It's safe neighborhoods. It's a chain, and without one of them, all of it could fall apart."

The health partnership has tackled such concerns as substance abuse, teen pregnancy, improving fitness, developing youth leaders, and training police and community leaders in mental-health first aid. The group also started "Energize Everett" in 2009 to improve the availability of fresh produce and to boost physical activity. Everett now hosts a farmers' market and has community gardens tended by dozens of families. The city converted a disused high school into an affordable community fitness center.

Many immigrant-led organizations that work with Latino, Haitian, and Brazilian communities have taken on jobs as a core concern. They have formed a coalition called One Everett, which recognizes that a living wage is the foundation for a healthy life. Families in Everett earn a median household income of $48,319, compared with $65,981 statewide.

One Everett joined a regional campaign that successfully advocated for higher base pay for workers at Boston Logan International Airport. Only four miles from the airport, Everett is home to hundreds of airport service employees. They now earn $10 per hour, above the state's new minimum wage of $9 per hour.

Education, a Foundation of health

The city's diverse public schools system is where many of the community's challenges are being met with the most innovative solutions. Enrollment has jumped from 5,700 to 7,500 students over the past decade. Students come from families speaking more than 50 languages and dialects.

Cambridge Health Alliance operates a clinic at the high school, offering medical services, counseling, and confidential reproductive health care. "The bottom line is we have a responsibility to these young people," says Superintendent of Schools Frederick Forestiere. The high school has formed a partnership with a program called YouthHarbors that aids youth who are homeless. The district has 153 students without permanent homes. Some fled trauma in their homelands and suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Many Haitian students arrived alone in Everett after the 2010 earthquake.

"When people hear PTSD, they think of military veterans, and that's not the issue in the schools," says John Obremski, principal of the George Keverian School, an elementary school with 50 students who receive counseling. "A traumatic episode for a child could be leaving their home country to come here." Through a $1.2 million federal grant, the school system has added seven counselors and opened a mental health clinic at Keverian, serving several hundred students from the district. And another nonprofit provider of mental health services — Eliot Community Human Services —works within all the Everett public schools.

"A healthy community isn't going to work in isolation," Obremski says. "It has to work in cooperation, and it takes an entire community to work together in order to solve the problems."

If your community is on a journey to better health, be sure to apply for the Prize. The application deadline is November 12.

Learn about what it takes to create healthier communities here >

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

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