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Penn Nursing > Giving > Urban Women's Health


Helping to care for young mothers and their babies in inner-city Philadelphia, Katherine Kinsey, NU’80 GNU’81 GR’92, sees women navigate barriers to health every day. Kinsey, a Principal Investigator and Administrator with Nurse Family Partnership, says she realized early in her longstanding career that women living in urban areas face unique healthcare challenges from the moment they wake up in the morning.

“Imagine getting up in the morning and having no heat in your home. On top of that you have to get money together to buy tokens to take two busses to get to your baby’s checkup,” said Kinsey. “And maybe the weather is bad that day so you have to bundle up your child, get your boots or umbrella and trudge to the bus stop. When you get there the busses are 20 minutes late so you are late to your appointment, and the first thing you hear at the office is, ‘You’re late.’ Then you and your child are seen by a clinician in a residency program whom you may never see again, so you have no relationship with this person and he or she may give you only basic information. And each visit the cycle starts over.”

Kinsey says she was thrilled to learn that Penn Nursing’s Urban Women’s Health Initiative is founded on the perspective that environments uniquely impact the health of the people within them. With more than 3.3 billion people – more than half of the world’s population – living in urban areas, it is increasingly evident that urban living has a distinct impact on the health of women and girls. Through the Urban Women’s Health Initiative, Penn Nursing is taking the lead to better understand the complex relationship between urban living and the health of women, with the goal of developing innovative solutions that make urban communities safer, more accessible and more livable.

This ambitious but practical goal was born more than five years ago. Penn Nursing Dean Afaf Meleis remembers how a conversation with Vivian Pinn, director of the National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women’s Health, produced a light-bulb moment that continues to drive forward Penn Nursing’s Urban Women’s Health Initiative today.

“I asked Dr. Pinn to be part of a think tank that focused on the intersection of women’s health and urban environment – what we had termed urban women’s health.” remembered Dean Meleis. “She was certain that she could provide significant data on the topic.  But when she arrived at the meeting, she shared that there was no data.  And she said, ‘You are on to something here.  Why are we not looking at this relationship?’”

It means looking at problems from a new, innovative perspective and translate research into practical and transformational solutions. In nursing, that means changing lives. In fact, Penn Nursing’s unique perspective on women’s global health is producing light-bulb moments inside and outside of the Penn community.

“Thought leaders here at the School of Nursing started challenging the way we think about women’s health since the Global Issues in Women’s Health Summit we held in 2005,” said Afaf I. Meleis, Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. “We have been working with so many partners – across disciplines and across the world – to highlight the connections between women’s health and the well-being, stability and progress of their communities.”
And that message has generated energy, enthusiasm and gotten people seeing things a little differently. In fact, Penn Nursing’s distinct approach to improving the health of women has influenced the perspective of leaders in the city of Miami; the University’s Institute of Urban Research; and the International Council on Women’s Health Issues (ICOWHI) – all whom are talking about urban women’s health.

At an Urban Women’s Health conference hosted by Penn Nursing in partnership with ICOWHI this past spring with 365 participants from 38 countries, the energy was palpable with many voicing the need to foster research to better understand how women’s health, public health and urbanization are interconnected.  For the past year, 12 Rockefeller-Penn fellows have hosted a discussion board, analyzed the information that is available and began to ask the questions on the effect of physical environment on women and communities.

One Rockefeller-Penn Scholar, Dr. Nisha Botchwey, associate professor in the Department of Urban & Environmental Planning at the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia, specializes in community development and neighborhood planning and public health promotion.  “This is an exciting topic for me, because I am a city planner and earnestly believe – and see – that our environments have  a major impact on health outcomes, “ shared Botchwey, “And over the last year, there have been so many ah-ha moments for me – realizing just how different those impacts can be for women and girls.”
Today, the momentum around Penn Nursing’s urban women’s health initiative drives forward with the help of one of its pioneers, Penn Nursing Board of Overseers Vice Chairman Dean Kehler, W’79, who helped to launch the Urban Women’s Health Initiative and is now helping to sponsor Penn Nursing’s HEALTHY CITIES: HEALTHY WOMEN conference in New York City May 5, 2011.
Kehler sees Penn as ideal to lead the charge for healthier women and to build bridges between global leaders and professional disciplines.

“No other academic or governmental institution has thought to look at women’s health through the prism of the cities in which they live,” said Kehler.  “Penn has the resources to do it well – to make a significant impact, and make it quickly.”
When Penn President Dr. Amy Gutmann was selected by the UN to host the 2011International Colloquium of University Presidents and had the opportunity to select the topic, she selected “Women’s Empowerment.” – a theme she says builds on the momentum and energy of last spring’s ICOWHI conference and evokes the kind of active collaboration required to uphold and strengthen the foundation for human rights around the world.  

“To empower women to change the world, proponents of women’s rights – especially University leaders with the vision and resources to make a difference – must advance awareness, act to change policies, and assess strategies that work,” said Gutmann. “We must continue to raise our voices to reach the ears of policy makers with the message that healthy communities start with healthy women. When we improve healthcare, education, and job opportunities for women, we drive families, communities, cities, nations, and the world forward.”

While the energy and expertise that continues to grow around the Urban Women’s Health Initiative could soon produce an institute based at Penn Nursing, the School drives ahead toward the kind of avenues of action and awareness that Katherine Kinsey believes are key to improving lives. Kinsey’s organization, Nurse Family Partnership, has partnered with Penn Nursing to place graduated Penn Nurses in urban care settings.

“Behind the doors of homes that surround Penn are people with enormous needs,” she said. “And the responsibility that Penn Nursing has embraced is to move beyond the chronic disease model and to say we are uniquely positioned to think about a holistic view of women lives and what influences their health – the kind of approach that accounts for the person with whom we seek to make change.”

For more information on light-bulb moments from Penn Nursing’s Urban Women’s Health Initiative and ways you can get involved, please visit