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The GrassROOTS Community Foundation: Planting Roots in the Community.

May 31, 2013

GrassRoots01smallText by Sofiya Ballin. Images by G.W. Miller III.

The guests of St. Mark’s Church on Frankford Avenue are having a spiritual experience. Throughout the halls, up the stairs and in a large room, “Move Your Body,” Beyonce’s exercise remix to “Get Me Bodied,” blasts. Young girls perform choreographed steps across the stage as cups of fruit and yogurt are handed out on the sidelines. Teachers and facilitators, dressed in suits and ties get down and dirty doing push-ups as parents are out of breath from jumping jacks, catching an entirely different spirit.

This is a free health forum led by The GrassROOTs Community Foundation, the collaborative product of sociologist Dr. Janice Johnson Dias and The Roots’ frontman, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter.

Together they created a foundation that specifically targets young women, encouraging holistically healthy lifestyles. The forum features poet Ursula Rucker, a series of panels hosted by health professionals, mentors and the young girls participating in the program.

GrassROOTS president Janice Johnson Dias with Mayor Nutter.

GrassROOTS president Janice Johnson Dias with Mayor Nutter.

“The first lady was launching her initiative, Let’s Move!, and I thought it was a brilliant initiative,” says Johnson, “but I thought there were a few things missing that I could lend my own efforts to. It hadn’t really been specifically targeted around poverty, which is the mother of all diseases, and had not engaged the hip-hop community, who I think is dramatically effective because of the intersection of poverty and hip-hop.”

Johnson bridges the two worlds of hip-hop and health with events such as the Let’s Move It Philly! benefit concert. The foundation also aims to collaborate with community-based organizations, such as the Creative Healthy Informed Confident Knowledgeable Selves (C.H.I.C.K.S.) after-school health program.

As an advocate for finding the root of the health issues plaguing impoverished communities, Johnson reached out to the one person she knew who could lend his celebrity and passion to the cause when she decided to create the project.

Tariq Trotter, then a young man who was just an up-and-coming artist, happened to live in her apartment building when she was a student at Temple University.

“I would always hear someone speaking in patois,” says Trotter. “I finally decided to come upstairs and complain.”

Johnson laughs and reminisces over their neighborly banter. Johnson initially asked him to perform at their inaugural fundraising event. He performed alongside Rich Medina at The Blockley, but Trotter was down for further involvement. He now serves as chairman of the board.

BlackThought04“The Roots, we support a wide range of charities and their events,” says Trotter. “But in all the years that we’ve been rocking out, there hasn’t been anything that’s been the charity The Roots gets behind. Seeing people misappropriate funds and never seeing where it trickles down to, I wanted to be involved in something I could actually be about, as opposed to talking a good talk.”

Both Johnson and Trotter have daughters and they have encountered the predicament of raising young women of color with healthy habits when the statistics are against them.

“The health challenges that plague our community, such as obesity and hypertension, reside in these individuals, especially during their formative years,” says Johnson. “Among all groups, black girls are the only people who are shrinking. We are slated to die faster yet we are the people left in our communities to raise it.”

At the panel, the girls admit to initially hating yoga and that they still eat candy but are now aware of what bad eating habits can do to their body. Moderation is key. The number of girls participating in the foundation gets larger every year but as they triple in group size they also need to triple in funding.  Johnson is looking for institutional help and support from the city of Philadelphia.

“We have to be comfortable no matter how uncomfortable the topic when it comes to health and sex-health,” says Mayor Michael Nutter. “These are not easy conversations but these aren’t easy times. We need to make sure they (young women) are comfortable being smart. We need to celebrate them.”

The topics covered by GrassROOTs go beyond eating your vegetables. They educate young women on the all facets of their health. There was a session dedicated to explaining the difference between love, sex and infatuation.

“When they grow up, they give the largest percentage of their proceeds back to communities and families,” says Johnson.  “We have the chance to change or shift the life course of a generation. There’s no greater group than young women and girls.”

Throughout the panel, Trotter watches the girls talk with a broad grin on his face. The girls exhibit a new air of confidence and self-awareness. It’s something that can’t be taught.

“When they spoke at the health forum a year ago, they were a lot more apprehensive,” says Trotter. “You have to build up a certain level of trust. They’ve grown and become more mature. Watching them on the panel made me super proud.”

Now into their third year, GrassROOTs continues to plant the seeds of healthy habits, laying the foundation for a community to take root.

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