I arrived at The New York Academy of Medicine in 2007 and was eager to get to know our neighborhood, East Harlem. While the Academy’s School Health program had, for many years, been engaged in middle schools and high schools across the city and in East Harlem, and we had collaborated with several non-profits and academic institutions in the research activities of our Center for Epidemiologic Studies, we had not fully engaged in the neighborhood. We asked: What role might we best play and with which partners?

We began by looking at the history of this vibrant, complex part of the city—a home to people from Hispanic and other countries from all over the world; the birthplace of Afro-Latin Jazz; and a center for legendary activists and poets. As we learned more about the health of the people of East Harlem, it also became clear that the community was experiencing a disproportionate share of the health, economic and social challenges often found in many urban areas. Health statistics about the community reflected some of the worst disparities in New York City.

A disproportionate number of residents were living with chronic health problems. Economic, and in some cases, health care resources were limited, and  life expectancy for East Harlem residents was nine years lower than for people living just a few blocks away on New York’s Upper East Side.  

Once just seen as a big building on the corner of 103rd and 5th, we began to open our doors to events for people of all ages, talking to East Harlem residents and creating initiatives that addressed their interests and concerns, to begin:

• We partnered with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) and a variety of health-oriented, community-based organizations to work with the East Harlem Alliance for Public Health.

• We began our Age-Friendly NYC initiative in 2008, working with then City Council representative Melissa Mark-Viverito, cultural organizations, and groups that served older adults to bring together older persons across East Harlem to learn what they   thought the priorities should be for our first age-friendly neighborhood. Our Initiatives, such as “senior swim” became models city wide.

•Understanding that a lifetime of good health begins in childhood, we focused our city-wide work in East Harlem Schools, promoting a culture of health and giving students exposure to the health professions.

• To increase economic opportunities, we would also become active members of the East Harlem Community Alliance, serving on its Executive Committee and leading efforts to promote local purchasing to build community businesses.

This portfolio of work has been central to the story of the Academy in East Harlem.

This month, as my time at the Academy comes to an end, I believe that we have proved ourselves to be both a valuable resource and a reliable partner committed to improving the health and well-being of the people of East Harlem. At the same time, the wonderful people and community leaders of the East Harlem community have had a powerful impact on our organization. By listening to them, our staff learned the critical importance of community voices in understanding priority needs and crafting solutions. Our work with partners in East Harlem has made us more effective in achieving our mission to improve the health and well-being of all New Yorkers and people in cities worldwide.

This is why I am so proud to announce that our Board of Directors has agreed to continue to support and expand this work and the valuable relationships we have built in the community by establishing the Jo Ivey Boufford East Harlem Initiatives Fund.

The Fund will directly support:

• Our work with existing community networks and coalitions;

• Our ability to provide evidence for policies and programs that improve the community’s health;

• Our deepening engagement with  older adults in the community to promote ways for them to engage more actively in the community they love and have a high quality of life;

• Our ability to work with community partners to create healthy choices for food, physical activity, and social support within the community.

Working with data from the DOHMH’s Community Health Profiles and monitoring specific programs, the Academy’s Institute for Urban Health team will measure the progress of Fund-supported initiatives.

I am confident that the Academy will continue building on our work in East Harlem, not only because of the Institute team’s skill and dedication, but also because of the leadership of our Board and our new President, Judith Salerno, MD, who will begin on September 7.

She is a physician who has dedicated her career to improving the public’s health: she is a geriatrician who began her career caring for older adults; she was on the leadership team of the National Academy of Medicine (then the Institute of Medicine); and in her most recent role as president of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, she worked to enhance breast cancer prevention for women facing disparities in access to early detection and treatment. She is the ideal person to maintain and expand the Academy’s role in East Harlem.

“As one of our nation’s pre-eminent leaders in health and health care, we are truly excited that she [Judy Salerno] will be leading the Academy as our next president,” said George E. Thibault, MD, chairman of the Academy’s Board of Trustees. “She has the perfect blend of clinical, research, and health policy experience that spans both government and nonprofit sectors.”

With the generous support of the Jo Ivey BouffordEast Harlem Initiatives Fund contributors to date—George and Barbara Thibault, Jim and Kerianne Flynn, The Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, The Commonwealth Fund, Allen Spiegel and Amy Dorin—the Academy can continue to be a passionate and committed champion of the community that we proudly call home.