Profile: A Doctor in the Business of Fostering Healthy Communities

Hanaa Hamdi wants to bring people together to create sustainable, equitable and healthy neighborhoods

Hanaa Hamdi
Who: Hanaa Hamdi

Job: Director of health impact investment strategies and partnerships with New Jersey Community Capital

Experts largely agree that medical care is responsible for roughly 20 percent of an individual’s overall well-being, while factors like poverty, race, housing status and other so-called social determinants of health have a greater influence.

That has led healthcare systems to rethink their investments and focus new resources on initiatives to build affordable homes, safe parks to promote exercise, and gardens and greenhouses to expand access to healthy foods.

But Hanaa Hamdi, with New Jersey Community Capital, seeks to take this commitment even further by building elements designed to improve health into the organization’s neighborhood revitalization strategy. As its first director of health impact investment strategies and partnerships, she is looking to knit together capital support, best practice metrics and local input in ways that create healthier communities from the ground up.

“I look at health from a very broad lens. Health is an outcome of many things going right — of systems working together — or the opposite,” Hamdi said, noting that when you have frayed social systems, people struggle to remain healthy.

“There’s a whole different world out there that impacts health,” she added, far beyond the walls of a hospital or doctor’s office.

In the beginning: Hamdi immigrated to the United States at age 6 — her parents were political refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea, by way of Egypt — and grew up in an ethnically diverse, working-class community in southeast San Diego. Two years later, she lost a friend to diabetes, a situation that led her to begin to question her surroundings and their impact on health.

Hamdi received a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology and behavior from San Diego State University, then studied public health and cancer epidemiology at Harvard University, where she researched how environmental factors contributed to breast cancer among residents of several low-income communities in Boston. She moved to New Jersey in 2006 to attend NJ Institute for Technology and Rutgers University’s Urban Public Health and Environment program, where she got a PhD.

During her doctorate program, she also taught at Rutgers Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine, which exposed her to the health challenges faced by residents of Newark — challenges that echoed those faced by families in southeast San Diego, or in the Roxbury section of Boston, she said.

“The responsibilities for us being healthy happens long before we walk in the door of a hospital,” Hamdi said.

Her experience in Newark led her to a job as CEO of a local federally qualified health clinic and eventually to a role as the city’s health director, under former Mayor Cory Booker, now a U.S. Senator (D-NJ) and presidential candidate.

“This is where you see poverty having an impact; you see homelessness” impacting health, Hamdi explained. “It isn’t one administration, one political party; these are systems that aren’t working.”

Connecting parks and health: When Booker took office, the city had been working with the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit conservation group, to restore and maintain the Mildred Helms Park in the Clinton Hill neighborhood. TPL also partnered with Newark leaders to create Newark Riverfront Park, along the Passaic. This work — how it engaged funders, nonprofit groups and residents — appealed to Hamdi, who joined the Trust as its national public health director in 2016.

“Green infrastructure is more necessary today than it ever was, because of climate change,” she said, and parks can form a “connective tissue” to help sustain communities. “If you allow communities to articulate what they want, they do know. We just don’t trust them enough.”

In two-and-a-half years with TPL, Hamdi said she learned a lot about how investment in parks and other green infrastructure matters in communities across the nation. She also came to appreciate how public health required coordinated work among a variety of diverse entities — public and private — to address not only parks and open space, but housing concerns, education needs, healthy food challenges and much more.

Building bridges: During this time, Hamdi also began serving on the New Jersey Community Capital board, and realized the 30-year-old organization, which focuses on revitalizing underserved communities, could be a vehicle for this wellness-focused work. Other NJCC leaders also saw the potential and they created the new role of director of health impact investment strategies and partnerships, which she was tapped to fill in May.

Hamdi said her goal in this position is to build a bridge between public health officials, healthcare and hospital systems, capital investors and community members, and channel funding to projects that will make the largest impact on well-being. It’s not just about creating granting opportunities, she said, but bringing people together to create sustainable, equitable and healthy neighborhoods.

“I get to be that quarterback that brings all these partners together and makes them play nicely in the sand,” she said. NJCC will soon roll out a strategic plan to help guide this work statewide, and Hamdi said it would include a focus on improving health in rural parts of South Jersey. “Health is the responsibility of everybody,” she added.

Hamdi said her work would involve private corporations, philanthropy, organizations like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — which has focused on social determinants —and hospital systems such as RWJBarnabas, which has committed to various community-building projects in Newark. But it will also go beyond what hospital systems have done so far, which she said is primarily focused on improving health for the “catchment area” of patients they serve — not building a healthy community for everyone, regardless of where they get clinical care.

“It’s step by step, but we’re in it for the long haul,” Hamdi said. “My hope is to make New Jersey a model for a healthy, thriving state.”

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