As a lifelong resident of Chicago’s West Side who is passionate about supporting her community, Ayesha Jaco has one fundamental goal: to help ensure her fellow “West Siders” have the best possible odds of living long, healthy lives.
“We want every young person born on the West Side to live to 100 years old and to have a quality of life that promotes that,” Jaco says.
Addressing a Startling and Somber Disparity
Jaco, 43, is executive director of West Side United (WSU), a health equity collaborative aimed at tackling the root causes of the life expectancy gap between residents of Chicago’s West Side, who are predominantly Black and Latinx, and many of whom fall into the working-class or lower-income economic groups, and those who live in other, more affluent areas of the city. The organization’s mission? To eradicate the shocking 14-year life expectancy gap between Chicago’s Loop section and the West Side communities.
This is a cause that’s near and dear to Jaco’s heart.
A Lifelong Dedication to Community Service
Before joining WSU, Jaco had served as co-founder and director of We Are M.U.R.A.L. (Magnifying Urban Realities & Affecting Lives), formerly known as The Lupe Fiasco Foundation.
“Lupe Fiasco is a Grammy Award-winning hip hop artist, activist and educator who happens to be my younger brother,” says Jaco. “We created the foundation at a time in Chicago where a collaboration between hip hop and philanthropy was starting to emerge.”
Jaco and her brother had a very personal motivation for this project. “We started the work in honor of our father, who died prematurely from complications of diabetes and heart disease,” she explains. “We had a focus on food equity and wellness in general. We did work around music and education, knowing the transformative power of the arts, and music in particular.”
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What the ‘Death Gap’ Means for Poorer Neighborhoods
That organization achieved meaningful accomplishments with a wide range of programs related to food equity, youth empowerment, work education and other important issues. After the organization folded, Jaco was contemplating her next move when she discovered the book The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills, by David Ansell, which explores the disparities in health and average lifespans when comparing the country’s poorest and richest neighborhoods, using parts of Chicago as an example. “It focused on the West Side, places I had lived before,” Jaco says.
In addition to her father, several other members of Jaco’s family had died at a relatively young age. “I had an aunt that died prematurely, and my grandmother and it was all from conditions that drive this death gap. So I was just blown away by the world. By serendipity, I came across the opportunity to apply for something called West Side United,” she shares.
Supporting Health and Wellness on Chicago’s West Side
West Side United was born out of RUSH University Medical Center’s Community Health Needs Assessment in 2016 which, Jaco says, “really laid out the different life expectancies across the Green and Blue lines from downtown to Oak Park.”
Jaco and the rest of the founding team began in 2017 by bringing together six of the area’s largest healthcare providers to discuss important issues and challenges related to hiring, education, and creating career pathways that could allow local youth to go from high school programs and internships into opportunities for medical assistants, certified nursing assistants and respiratory therapy roles.
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The organization officially launched in 2018 and gradually broadened its focus to encompass other health and wellness issues that also play a role in that life expectancy gap, including infant mortality and hypertension, as well as lifestyle and environmental factors like kindergarten readiness, gun violence, access to healthy food and safe, affordable housing. “We’ve got to look at the social drivers of health and have active strategies and or partnerships with folks to create a better quality of life,” Jaco says.
Making a Meaningful Impact
Among the organization’s accomplishments to date: 34 anchor institution employees are participating in the Medical Assistant pathways program, and in the first three years, the internship programs have hired more than 770 high school students from the West Side. Eight food pantries have partnered with WSU-related institutions to support emergency food access, and the Live Healthy Chicago program—in which WSU plays a big role—has distributed millions of meals to members of the community.
Additionally, an annual $400,000 small business grant program has awarded a total of more than $1.9 million to dozens of West Side businesses since 2018.
“And then there’s work that we do around convening,” Jaco says. “We are seen as a convener for the region. We co-convened [former] Mayor Lightfoot’s Racial Equity Rapid Response Team, mitigating a data-driven response to high rates of COVID mortality and morbidity in black and brown communities. That led to the formation of Healthy Chicago Equity Zones with the Chicago Department of Public Health.”
Considering it has only been in existence for six years, WSU has already produced impressive results, to the point that other cities and agencies from around the country have been trying to use the organization as a model they hope to replicate in their own communities, Jaco explains.
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Bridging the Arts Gap
Jaco is also passionate about addressing racial disparities when it comes to opportunities in the arts.
“Part of my essence as a West Sider and member of the community is that I’m also a choreographer and a former professional dancer, and in my realm of giving back to the community, I formed a youth dance company called Move Me Soul 15 years ago,” Jaco shares. “To date, we’ve worked with 2,000 young people or more. We’re part of the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project, which was built to help bridge the gap in funding between Black arts organizations, dance companies in particular, and white organizations on the North Side. So it’s that same bridging, and that’s very much part of my passion and work, creating art and working with young people.”
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