Health disparities in Seattle’s ID: Hiding in plain sight

October 26, 2016

This past August, in my first month back at Resource Media, I was honored to lead a pro-bono communications project with InterIm CDA (Community Development Association). InterIm advocates for social justice, affordable housing, and building community for low-income, immigrant, and refugee individuals and families. Its long-time executive director Bob Santos, who passed away in August of this year, was known as the unofficial “mayor” of the Chinatown-International District (ID).

After decades of work with community partners to address public safety, displacement, economic development and public health, InterIm CDA was granted funding to embark on an extensive, yearlong community engagement process to inform their 2020 Healthy Community Action Plan. The Plan’s goal is to provide local governments, partners, developers, and funders with actionable evidence and community-approved solutions to improving the health, safety, and livability of the ID neighborhood.

Chinatowns have typically emerged due to forced segregation and economic forces, and while communities have found ways to benefit from this insularity, it’s evident that the city of Seattle still lacks a system to address historic under-investment in the ID and problems that disproportionately plague the neighborhood. That legacy and institutional racism exists precisely because of the neighborhood’s isolation.

Poverty, limited language skills, poor environmental quality and poor housing are social determinants of health in the ID that explain a lot of the health outcomes and environmental challenges, such as:

  • The life expectancy of ID residents is seven years shorter than the longest life expectancy in King County;
  • Diabetes is the leading cause of death in the ID. People living in the ID have some of the highest prevalence of smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and no physical activity;
  • More people report having symptoms of poor mental health in the ID than elsewhere in King County.
  • The ID has the least amount of open and green space per person compared to any other neighborhood in the city;
  • Poor air quality contributes to more asthma, respiratory and cardiac-related hospital visits per capita than 99 percent of other Puget Sound neighborhoods. The ID is bisected by I-5, which has the highest traffic volumes in the Pacific Northwest.

Over the next month I met with InterIm often to lay out plans for messaging, social media strategy, and creative and earned media outreach. With eyes set on gaining city-wide mainstream media coverage, we proposed messaging that pointed out that the ID was not an amusement park—it doesn’t exist solely as a restaurant and shops playground: people actually live here, and their health is suffering.

When I talked about some of these health disparities with the media, many reporters I spoke with were surprised. “Really?”

It became clear to me that this surprise is embedded in the model minority myth facing many Asian Americans. It’s assumed that the racial category of Asians is more affluent, hard-working, and are generally “staying out of trouble.” As a result, problems facing Chinatowns are often overlooked by their cities. Poverty and long-brewing health disparities are plaguing its residents, particularly seniors.

Due to our work with InterIm, the 2020 Healthy Community Action Plan was covered by both Seattle’s local NPR affiliate and NBC affiliate, as well as API-focused media outlets. At the time of writing this, InterIm CDA has received a quarter of a million dollars of funding for implementation from Swedish Health Services and the BUILD Health Challenge Grant. InterIm will now move toward its next phase of implementing the plan.

As an Asian American with experience working in the ID and covering issues facing its residents for the International Examiner, it meant a lot to me to be chosen as the lead for this work. For a long time my work at Resource Media didn’t always match my personal passions. But as Resource Media evolves toward focusing on the intersections between people, society, and their environments, all of us are more likely to have a personal history, affiliation, or cultural context on the issues we tackle in the office.

As Resource Media is expanding the focus of its mission to change people’s lives, in addition to places and natural resources, it’s become clear that cultural competency is an asset that benefits not just us as an organization, but the organizations we serve.

The 2020 Healthy Community Action Plan is a BUILD Health Challenge Grant project, funded by Kresge Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson, Colorado Health Foundation, de Beaumont Foundation and Advisory Board Company. To find out more about InterIm CDA’s Healthy Communities program, email

Sian Wu

Image credit: InterIm CDA