Catalyst for Change: Buffalo Center for Health Equity

“Human beings have the amazing capacity to do big things, when it’s a priority.”

Rev. George Nicholas, affectionately known in the community as Pastor George, is Chief Executive Officer of the Buffalo Center for Health Equity (BCHE), where he’s laser-focused on the health challenges facing Erie County, particularly Buffalo’s East Side. He looks forward to the day when it’s impossible to tell someone’s ethnicity, race, education level, socioeconomic status, and neighborhood just by looking at their medical chart.

He imagines a new reality, where explicit and implicit biases are no longer among the determining factors in a person’s health outcomes. And he insists that change is within our collective grasp. “The argument isn’t whether or not it’s possible. The argument is whether it’s a priority.”

From task force to changemaker

Established in 2019, BCHE grew out of the African American Health Equity Task Force, thanks in large part to a grant from the Health Foundation. Made up of local clergy, university faculty, community leaders, and residents, the task force, which had formed in 2014, was doing unfunded research and introducing new ideas into the public dialogue about health care.

Pastor George says that when Nora OBrien-Suric, PhD, President of the Health Foundation, reached out to him, the Health Foundation became “the first foundation to step up and say we want to invest in the work you’re doing.” With the initial grant from the Health Foundation and funds from Erie County, the group was able to establish BCHE, hire staff, and build capacity.

Five years later, the Center is more active than ever. Equal parts think tank and advocacy powerhouse, it conducts research, crafts policy recommendations, develops programs, collaborates with government, engages the community to collect valuable data, and elevates public discourse. BCHE helped Erie County establish its first Office of Health Equity and was also instrumental in creating the University at Buffalo’s Community Health Equity Research Institute.

Strategic priorities

Through research and events, the Center has delved into numerous areas, including maternal health, mental health, trauma, Black men’s health, menthol cigarettes, gun violence, and substandard housing. Its annual Igniting Hope Conference invites national speakers to add to the community conversations. Just recently, the Buffalo Sewer Authority contracted with BCHE to create the Environmental Justice Corps, which provides paid job training for adults 18 to 30. Pastor George believes that to tackle health disparities, it’s imperative to address economic and educational inequities as well.

He lists four core priorities for improving health outcomes:

  • Bring every child to grade level. City of Buffalo students are twice as likely to live in poverty as students in the Buffalo-Niagara metro area, and educational outcomes reflect this disparity.
  • Make sure every residence (whether it’s a rental or a house) is up to code and affordable. Some residents are currently paying 50 percent of their income to rent substandard housing.
  • Make sure every person is operating at their highest level of employment.
  • Make sure every person has a primary care physician. A good doctor-patient relationship can play a key role in overall health.

Pastor George explains that once these four areas are addressed, the economic status of the community will improve, and so will residents’ access to a better quality of life. In other words, a thoughtful and comprehensive strategy is needed to get to the root causes of health disparities.

The power of partnerships

Health equity work requires a high level of coordination and collaboration between government, academic institutions, health care organizations, the private sector, and community groups. Of course, philanthropy can play a role as well. None of BCHE’s work would be possible without support from philanthropic partners. Pastor George explains how the Health Foundation’s initial investment helped BCHE “multiply organizationally and programmatically.” As BCHE has grown, high-profile projects have attracted additional private and public funders and partners.

Grateful for the early seed planted by the Health Foundation, Pastor George has advice for other philanthropic organizations that might want to support health equity work:

  • Invest in people who started doing the work even before they received funding.
  • Invest in ideas. Encourage people to explore a comprehensive, integrated approach. Simply expanding a service delivery system won’t address the root causes.
  • Include people with the expertise to begin the hard conversations.
  • Don’t expect immediate results.

Meaningful change requires focus, time, and patience. Both despite and because of this, the head of the Buffalo Center for Health Equity is as hopeful as ever.

“If you’re not optimistic in the work, then why are you doing it?”