Through Photos, Oakland Youth Focus On Neighborhood Health (Video)

Fifteen students stand facing an imaginary line bisecting the room.

“If someone in your family has diabetes, cross the line,” said Sidra Bonner, the UCSF medical student leading the session on community health. Twelve of the 15 students cross the line. “If you have been affected by gun violence, cross the line.” Every student shuffles across.

The game is called "cross the line." The students playing have all returned to school here at Civicorps, an Oakland-based non-profit that helps high-risk young adults get a high school diploma and job training. The school is right next to the Port of Oakland. Outside, trains whistle and trucks rumble down the freeway.

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Bonner and other medical students leading the class talk about how rates of disease vary by neighborhood. In parts of east and west Oakland, life expectancy is a full 10 years less than it is in the more affluent hills neighborhoods, according to the Alameda County Public Health Department. Rates of heart disease, diabetes, and asthma all shake out in a similar way.

The students nod along, unsurprised. “Every day you see somebody sick, or in need. It's normal to see that,’” said Hassinnie Bennett, one of the Civicorps students.

“No one wants to just sit there and hear how violent and oppressed their community is, ” said Bonner. “How do you say, ‘This is the epidemiology,’ but also say, ‘You guys should feel empowered to do something about this?’”

The medical students then distributed cameras, and instructed the students to take pictures of whatever affects health in their neighborhoods -- the good and the bad.

Hours later, the students came back with photos of trash, abandoned buildings, and liquor stores -- often the only place around to buy food. But the students also took photos of parks, public transit, swimming pools, and murals.

“It gives you a third eye,” said Bennett. “It opens up your eyes to things you wouldn’t normally notice -- more stuff that has light and beauty to it.”

As the Civicorps students began seeing their neighborhoods in a new light, the medical students were gathering insight into the lives of their future patients.

Bonner and co-facilitator Faby Molina are already studying medicine in a program that trains doctors to work in medically-underserved communities. Working with the Civicorps students added something they can’t get in class -- “being able to really spend time and hear what their day-to-day lives are is so important as a future provider,” said Bonner.

The medical students said the experience will make them more empathetic doctors, with a better understanding of their patients' lives and communities. "Unless you have that basic understanding," Bonner says, "you’re not going to be as effective in empowering your patients to take ownership of their health.”