In the city of Chicago, there is a 20-year life expectancy gap between communities of color and predominantly white communities. If you live in a neighborhood like Pilsen, statistically speaking, you’re likely to not live as long as someone who lives in Oak Park. Pilsen native Tanya Lozano has set out to combat this gap through her nonprofit, Youth Service Corps, and her fitness and dance studio, Healthy Hood.
“We were trying to figure out how to combat that 20-year life expectancy gap because it’s extremely upsetting when you hear it and a lot of people are just unaware that that’s the case,” Lozano explains. Five diseases cause most of these early deaths: diabetes, hypertension, cancer, HIV/AIDS, and asthma. Youth Health Service Corps was founded seven years ago and works in 21 Chicago Public Schools locations to educate students about those five diseases and also provide certification to students to screen others for signs they may be affected. Students are certified after they take a certain amount of classes supervised by a medical student or resident.
“And so then after they get certified to screen for those diseases, they’re responsible for finding ten people in their family or in their community to screen,” Lozano explains. “Because you know with any of these diseases, if they’re detected early you have a much better chance on fighting it, beating it, and obviously not dying from it. So we call it ‘Five Plus One Equals 20.’ Five screenings, plus one lifestyle change which is obviously diet and exercise, and that equals the 20 years of life that you would get back.”
Students in the Youth Health Service Corps are supplied with materials such as blood pressure cuffs for at home screenings where they can check blood pressure. They’re also taught how to perform glucose screenings with an Accu-Chek device. The students give screenings at their school’s annual health fair. One year a student detected a family member’s heart irregularity and an ambulance was called.
Three years into Youth Health Service Corps, Lozano realized that putting the responsibility of prescribing a lifestyle plan for someone else onto students wasn’t effective or realistic. The “one lifestyle change” was the most difficult aspect for communities of color like hers: “We just naturally, through tradition, eat very greasy and salty foods, and we work two or three jobs to sustain our families, and there’s not a whole lot of time to exercise and if there is there’s really not a lot of resources in these communities as to how you can exercise,” she says. As a result, Healthy Hood was born.
Located in the recreation hall of Lincoln Methodist Church in Pilsen, Healthy Hood offers nutrition workshops, provides free, fresh produce to community members from its onsite garden, and above all else, teaches people how to break a sweat. The class schedule changes regularly and is posted on Healthy Hood’s Instagram page at the beginning of the week. Usually between 10 and 14 fitness and dance classes are offered. There is no registration required: all you need to do it show up with five dollars for the class. Class sizes vary, but Healthy Hood attracts people of all ages from Pilsen, Logan Square, Englewood, and many west side neighborhoods. There are classes in hip-hop dance, meditation, karate, kickboxing, as well as a handful of more unique classes. The most popular offering, Trap Yoga, is exactly what it sounds like: yoga to trap music. “You’ll be going into like a chaturanga and all of a sudden Cardi B is like cursing at you,” Lozano explains. Another yoga class, Soul Flow, is taught to soul music like Al Green and Motown R&B. There’s even a class for dancing in heels called Vibe. “It’s all about embracing your sexuality as a woman and doing sexy and feeling like that’s okay,” Lozano explains.
There’s also a diverse group of instructors including Lozano herself, group exercise instructor Seobia Rivers, fitness trainer Jasmine Danielle, and heels instructor Christina Wilborn. Yoga instructors include Nicole Cordero, Candis Oakley, and Shea Gardner. It’s important to Lozano that everyone be able to find something that works for them. “When it comes to working out I feel like so often it’s looked at as something that’s like an obligation in order to be healthy,” she says. In other words, exercising should be fun and you shouldn’t have to do it alone. “Everyone cheers each other on,” she says. “It’s a real community approach to fitness.”
As an avid class attendee, 22-year-old Celeste Muniz found her safe haven in Healthy Hood. “As a former dancer, it’s hard finding your place where you fit in,” Muniz explains. “I got up the courage to go to go Healthy Hood. I started out as a dancer there, and immediately, I felt like I was at home. I felt comfortable, and I felt like myself again. They make it a point to make you feel like you’re wanted there. Immediately I fell in love, and I wanted to help out more.” Muniz now works at Healthy Hood as the studio manager.
The combination of activism and wellness fuels Healthy Hood’s attempts to close the life expectancy gap in the Pilsen community. “What we like to say is that the 20 year life expectancy gap is not a coincidence but something that has been systematically arranged that way to target a specific group of people,” Lozano explains. This is about the distribution of resources within the city of Chicago where food deserts persist in communities of color: there’s no proper access to resources such as organic produce or education for preventative healthcare. “And so when you go and work out or when you choose to eat healthy or when you choose to be part of a community where that is something that we’re all kind of promoting, then you’re revolutionary,” Lozano continues. “You’re standing up to something that you feel is an injustice. It’s like you’re killing two birds with one stone. You’re working out for yourself but you’re also doing something extremely positive for your community.”