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RECAP: Healthy Communities=Healthy Democracy

Staff | Published on 1/19/2024

RECAP of the January 2024 Hot Topics

Explore the program review below, bios of the panelists and links to their organizations as well as TAKE ACTION resources.

"Statistics show that communities with better mental and physical health care, access to good food, housing and education tend to have greater civic engagement and voter participation since residents believe they have a right and a need to make decisions about where they live. They are more invested in their communities and want to make their voices heard. Similarly, communities that are troubled by high crime rates, illiteracy, homelessness, physical and mental health problems tend to be less hopeful about their futures and less inclined to vote."

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Freddy Morello is executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Greater Orlando with more than a decade of service in the social services sector. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.

Morello’s experience includes leading programs in New York, Massachusetts, Florida and Georgia. has a demonstrated ability to provide strategic vision and leadership to foster the success and growth of program participants and staff. With an Innovative eye towards the future, his goal is to improve and advocate for stronger services in underprivileged areas in our


Prior to his work in Orlando, Morello was a faculty member at Clubhouse International for five years. Clubhouse International is a nonprofit organization that helps to establish Clubhouses where people with mental illness can go to get their lives back.

Through over 320 local Clubhouses in more than 30 countries around the world, Clubhouse International offers people living with mental illness opportunities for friendship, employment, housing, education and access to medical and psychiatric services in a single, caring and safe environment. This social and economic inclusion seeks to reverse the alarming trends of higher suicide, hospitalization and incarceration rates associated with mental illness.

NAMI Greater Orlando: Mental Health Support

Dr. Bahiyyah Maroon is chief executive officer at Polis Institute. Widely recognized for her contributions to innovation in social good initiatives, Maroon is a recipient of the United States President’s Volunteer Service Award and has been a National Science Foundation Fellow. In her career, she’s provided research and strategy insights to Intel Corporation, the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Education, Harvard University, Columbia University and the U.S. Department of Labor, among others.

She holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California Santa Cruz. She is the author of a forthcoming book of essays “Black Lives, American Love” (Chicago Review Press, 2023). A dedicated public scholar, she is often highlighted in the press for her social science insights (Women’s Health, Bustle, ABC, Healthline). Maroon is passionate about using

scientific insights to create solutions for building a more compassionate and vibrant world benefiting the many.

The Polis Institute partners with stakeholders to improve solutions to social and economic issues. The institute helps communities and stakeholders achieve their vision of socio-economic mobility and success in areas of health, education, community empowerment and more.

POLIS Institute

Tracy Swanson, Chief Executive Officer at Foundation for a Healthier West Orange

Drawing on background as a former Disney executive and prior certified public accountant/business strategist, Tracy Swanson provides leadership for the foundation, representing the nonprofit entity to community citizens and healthcare/wellness stakeholders to build enduring, collaborative relationships designed to identify and support the health and

wellness needs of the community. She leads the identification of innovative collaborations and synergies that maximize the impact of investments for the health and well-being of west Orange County residents.

As a local health and wellness advocate, the foundation invests in and champions programs to make west Orange County, Florida the healthiest community in the nation by empowering and encouraging residents in their pursuit of health and wellness. The foundation manages programs like Healthy West Orange, the HUBB community resource center and several targeted health initiatives.

Swanson served as CEO of the West Orange Healthcare District for seven years. The West Orange Healthcare District was created by an Act of the 1949 Florida Legislature to improve the health and well-being of west Orange County residents. She also worked as vice president for benefits, health and workforce solutions at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts for eight years.

FHWO-Foundation for a Healthier West Orange

Sandi Vidal serves as the vice president of community strategies and initiatives for the Central Florida Foundation. Within her role at the foundation, Sandi works on a variety of initiatives including sustainable development goals, poverty alleviation and social justice, and is the staff liaison for the 100 Women Strong Giving Circle. Sandi is a graduate of the University of Miami School of Business with a degree in Business Administration and is a die-hard Cane in a house full of Noles. She has more than 15 years of nonprofit leadership and over 20 years of business management experience. 

Sandi has a passion for public speaking, advocating for solutions to complex social issues. She is also a local Jefferson Award winner for volunteerism, and currently serves on the nominating committee for the League of Women Voters of Orange County, as an advisor for the Health Equity Advisory for the East Orange Regional Planning Council, is a member of Mayor Buddy Dyer’s Multicultural Board, and serves on the board of ProNet. She has worked on many projects and initiatives in the community including Thrive, Black Boardroom Leadership Institute, and leads an international cohort of

foundations working on sustainable development goals.

Central Florida Foundation/High Impact Philanthropy

Rachel Allen The founding executive director of the Peace and Justice Institute, Rachel C. Allen is a lifelong educator, national speaker, writer and peace and justice practitioner. For the past 15 years she has directed the work of the Peace and Justice Institute, named one of the 101 things to love about Central Florida by the Orlando Sentinel and winner of the Orlando Business

Journal’s Diversity in Business Awards in 2022.

The institute focuses on making a difference by intentionally engaging in principles and practices that explore, advocate and honor the dignity of self, others and the earth. In 2018 Rachel was invited to speak at a special session at the United Nations to share a

credible pathway to the culture of peace and was noted as a Social Justice Game Changer by the Orlando Magic. PJI’s work to create a resilient Central Florida was recognized by the Office of the Governor and in 2021 Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer awarded PJI his Community Builder Award.

PJI regards every community member as a rising peace and justice practitioner and provides the

means for all to be leaders of socially inclusive change and innovation in their circle of

influence. After 15 years of development at Valencia College and with an expansion of reach

and vision, PJI has been established as a 501(c)3 organization.

Peace and Justice Institute-ALL People ALL Voices ALL Matter

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By Judi Hayes
What does democracy have to do with health? And what can we as a community do to support one another and make the world a better place? 
The first Hot Topics of 2024 found the League of Women Voters of Orange County collaborating with the Central Florida Foundation and the Peace and Justice Institute to discuss that and more. 
Sandi Vidal, vice president of community strategies and initiatives with the Central Florida Foundation (and a former League co-president), moderated a panel of area experts — Tracy Swanson, CEO of the Foundation for a Healthier West Orange; Freddy Morello, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Orlando, Rachel Allen, executive director of the Peace and Justice Institute, and Dr. Bahiyyah Maroon, CEO of the Polis Institute. 
Statistics bear out that access to food, housing, health care, and education improve civic and voter engagement because residents feel invested in their communities and understand that they have both the right and the responsibility to make decisions about where they live. Conversely, communities plagued by crime, illiteracy, homelessness, and health problems are less likely to vote and more likely to feel a sense of hopelessness about their futures. The panelists offered unique insights into how we can improve outcomes for both civic participation and mental and physical health, how they interact and how different organizations can work together to achieve those goals. 
Tracy Swanson discussed how to engage community stakeholders by the construction of the HUBB, an online database that served more than 10,000 West Orange residents last year, helping them access and navigate community resources such as mental health, housing, food and education.
Maroon presented a bare-bones look at the single largest determinant of public health — ZIP code. She offered a recommendation that the League become involved in communities with the most need, respecting the will and wisdom of the community members to help educate them and help them make informed voting decisions. 
The facts and figures highlighted by Moreno showed that one in four adults is dealing with mental health issues, and he talked about how support, education and advocacy help turn a tax burden into a taxpayer. 
Rachel Allen gave a brief overview of how the Peace and Justice Institute began at Valencia Community College and has expanded into an independent organization, focusing on resiliency as the key to community health. She talked about a recent trip that Orlando community leaders made to Miami to examine what the city has done to reduce “frequent fliers” in the jail population. Often these are people who have addictions or mental illness and don’t belong in jail. Miami has been successful in reducing its
jail population by offering alternative resources.
Suggestions for how to improve community health include engaging stakeholders, talking to our neighbors and in the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

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Jan 2024: Healthier Communities = Healthier Democracy

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