Wholeness and Health

Shoshanah Brown '04 works to bring home healthcare to underserved New York City communities.

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Erica Lansner

As CEO of AIRnyc, Shoshanah Brown ’04 fights for the well-being of low-income New Yorkers. She leads a team of 17 community health workers who help create healthier environments for people suffering from the chronic illnesses that are triggered or exacerbated by poverty. “The idea of addressing the social determinants of health has been a core focus for me from the beginning,” Brown explains. Since starting her career as a community health worker in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso, West Africa, this focus has carried her through all her roles, including at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. After years of working in population health, Brown wanted to develop her management and financial skills; at Columbia, she says, she learned to apply the concepts of value and return-on-investment in a social and health context.

Addressing a Range of Health Issues

When Brown joined the Harlem-based initiative that is now AIRnyc in 2009, the focus was exclusively on asthma, the number one reason New York City children miss school and are hospitalized. It has since evolved to address a wider range of health issues. The “at-home” element is crucial. “If a physician is sending a patient with asthma back into a mold- or roach-infested apartment,” Brown says, “there may be a limit to the benefits of prescribing medication.”

The Link Between Poverty and Illness

AIRnyc serves thousands of families each year, usually referred by physicians, schools, and social service providers. The organization may connect a family to an attorney to help demand home repairs, or assist a non-English-speaking family in understanding medication instructions. AIRnyc conducts home environmental assessments to help families identify asthma triggers, such as mold and pests. “Because the conditions we address are so highly correlated with poverty,” she says, “we don’t just focus on the medical aspects of the disease. We’re looking at barriers to health and developing action plans with families in a goal-oriented way.”

Meeting People Where They Live

AIRnyc began as a research initiative with several organizations, including Columbia. Recently, Brown oversaw AIRnyc’s shift from relying on philanthropy to generating revenue from healthcare organizations that hire AIRnyc to help expand clinical services. “My time at CBS also prepared me to take the reins of this small, struggling, charity-dependent project and grow it into what is now a viable social enterprise with an expanded mission, funding 80 percent of our budget with earned revenue.”

A System in Need of Repair

Brown says that the health conditions that AIRnyc addresses are physical manifestations of America’s failure to solve the issues that disproportionately plague communities of color: food insecurity, a lack of safe housing, violence, and mass incarceration. “We tolerate this injustice right here in our own communities,” she says. Brown is committed to changing the conversation about increasing health equity by investing in programs that address the social determinants of health. “Housing conditions, the food we eat, where we send our kids to school—these factors have the greatest impact on our ability to be healthy, show up at work or school, and stay out of the hospital.”

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