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A Life Connected

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El’gin Avila is a PhD student in public health who has witnessed the gentrification of neighborhoods all across America. He strives to make conditions better for workers and disenfranchised communities. He carries a bold vision, but as he puts it, “You can never care enough.”

El’gin Avila looks out of the window of a coffee shop on Washington Avenue. The light rail is within view. Passersby clutch their jackets and brace their shoulders against the Minnesota winter. The air inside the café is chilly, but only a fraction of what those on the other side of the glass pane must feel.

“On days like this, I can’t help but think about people waiting for public transportation in unenclosed spaces, and people without homes,” said Avila. “The light rail is a prime example of gentrification and displacement. After it was created, property values rose exponentially and small businesses disappeared. Its waiting area ignores the most vulnerable patrons who have to bear through extreme weather.”

Avila is a PhD student studying industrial hygiene, which is the science of protecting and enhancing the health and safety of people in workplaces and in their communities. Avila’s research interests include environmental and occupational health disparities amongst many others. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, his experience of social injustices have shaped his approach to public health. His work focuses on vulnerable populations engaging in precarious work.

Avila explains, “Precariousness can refer to unstable wages and hours, or the ever rising cost of living and the inability to adapt. All of these can be terrifying for communities with few resources.”

As part of the Agents of Change series on Environmental Health News, Avila wrote a powerful piece on gentrification, and how it adversely affects Black and Brown communities.

“Gentrification isn't necessarily the issue; the displacement and pervasive erasure of long-time residents, their culture, and their exclusion from the decision-making processes of their community is the issue,” said Avila. “This is a public health priority as housing stability and quality is a strong indicator of overall health and wellbeing.”

Health professionals, or as Avila coins, ‘environmental health leaders,’ need to take action and treat displacement as a public health issue.

“We don't need more research to understand the benefits of housing stability and protections from displacement,” said Avila. “We need to offer grassroots services to community organizations where we listen, educate as needed, and help mobilize communities who are at risk of displacement by collaborating to help them stay in and improve their communities from the ground up in their vision. This needs to be about people, not about large-scaled businesses.”

Job training programs, affordable grocers, better transit options, and financial resources are instrumental to building resiliency in low-income communities threatened by displacement.

“Gentrification feeds into so many things,” said Avila. “It is one of the biggest crimes. It is the veiled segregation of Black and Brown communities; a continuation of past programs and policies. Sure, they’ll allow people of color to move in, but only after their communities were bulldozed and only if you can afford the new market-setting prices. These policies are not supportive of people of color. My question always is, who are you trying to leave out?”

A Firsthand Account

As a PhD student, Avila’s income does not account for reasonable housing costs. Half of his income goes to rent, which leaves little for medical expenses and the daily costs of living.

“It’s hard to focus on my dissertation, because I’m thinking of finances,” said Avila. “It’s a checklist mentality that compounds on itself, and it only gets worse for people in service-oriented jobs.”

In psychology there’s a theory called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which describes behavioral motivation. It’s represented as a pyramid with different tiers: physiological needs, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization or self-fulfillment. If you can’t get your most basic needs met— food, shelter, etc., it’s very difficult to move up the pyramid.

Precariousness breeds inaccessibility. People are more likely to engage in risky behaviors to maintain a sense of security.

“When you put poor people with poor people, there’s a sense of community, but a downside is there are usually little means to pull yourself out of this precariousness,” said Avila.

Having witnessed the gentrification and displacement of neighborhoods of color in Detroit, Avila sees similar patterns occurring here in pockets of Minneapolis.

“You’ve erased a community and culture that’s now gone and seen as a prop,” said Avila. “It becomes a projection of what is thought of a place— a tourist destination to get tacos.”

A World without Poverty

Since Avila was a kid, he liked to solve complex puzzles. He looks at gentrification as if it was one of those puzzles: it’s just a matter of figuring it out.

“Housing is one of the biggest indicators of health,” said Avila. “Affordable housing needs to be truly affordable, and people should have homes they can be proud of.”

When asked about his vision for the future, Avila hopes for a more equitable society and a cultural shift toward sharing. That world is one where there is greater representation of communities in decision-making processes; where housing costs are below a quarter of wages and rent control is enacted across the board; where people with disabilities have greater accommodations; where public transit is free; and where workers are treated humanely.

Having a social network in place would enable people to pull themselves out of precarious situations. An interjection of the status quo would improve the quality of life so that everyone has the opportunity for a fulfilled life.

“Eliminating poverty should be the goal,” said Avila. “I am driven to do this work because my life isn’t just mine, it’s connected to everyone else.”

“Reimagine Health” is a series covering remarkable individuals making a difference in health and health care. Through novel approaches and interprofessional collaboration, the Office of Academic Clinical Affairs is reimagining health for Minnesota and beyond. Together we can address complex problems affecting community and individual health.

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