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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Pulse of Oakland

  • Author(s): Schell, Brittany Lynn
  • et al.

In urban areas across the country, many people are getting sick and dying earlier than they should. These causes can be avoided, but right now not everyone has an equal opportunity to be healthy.

Take Oakland for example. In this city, just shy of 400,000 residents, people in low-income areas like East and West Oakland are dying more than a decade earlier than people a few miles away in wealthier neighborhoods. Wealth—and, it turns out, good health—are concentrated in certain parts of the city.

On the hilltop campus of Merritt College in Oakland, Melinda Monterroso is finally reaching her goals. As the first in her family to graduate from high school and someone who grew up on the rough streets of “deep” East Oakland, it was a tough road to get here.

“I got really lucky. I wasn’t supposed to be where I am now,” she says. “I was set up for disaster.”

Living in East Oakland, Monterroso is at greater risk for health problems like diabetes, obesity, asthma and heart disease. She is more likely to be violently assaulted and less likely to find a job that pays her enough to make ends meet. She even had a lower chance of graduating high school than most other Oakland students.

If health was distributed evenly, life expectancy maps “would look like confetti,” says Bina Patel Shrimali, a health equity expert at the Alameda County Public Health Department, with colors sprinkled everywhere. Instead, she says, poor health and short lives are clustered in certain neighborhoods like East and West Oakland.

This is not simply a health issue, points out Sikander Iqbal, director at a community development group in East Oakland called Youth Uprising. It is also a social justice issue, he says, because people living in these areas are, for the most part, not white. West Oakland is predominantly African-American, and East Oakland is majority Hispanic.

And this is not an accident. Historical patterns of segregation pushed minorities into disadvantaged neighborhoods, and cycles of poverty and various policies have left these low-income communities of color ignored—and unhealthy.

“We’ve talked about racial health disparities for many years, and how income level affects health,” says Amy Smith, program manager at the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative, a cross-county organization working on environmental health issues. “Now we have to bring it to the next level, and look at the social and health problems rooted in where people live.”

So how are bad neighborhoods translating to poor health, and early death? And what is being done about it? Let’s visit East Oakland to find out.

This online journalism project consists of six text stories, interactive maps, photos and a short video. I reported, wrote and edited the content. I also designed and coded the maps and website.

The project can be seen online at

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