By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Obiageli ‘Oby’ Nwabuzor will be the first to tell you she loves Milwaukee. For her, Milwaukee is home, but the Milwaukee she grew up in isn’t the one she sees today. Milwaukee was promising, she said, and while great things are happening in some parts of the city, other parts are being neglected.
“Milwaukee has ample opportunity to continue to develop itself to be a thriving ecosystem in the city for those who want to live here,” Nwabuzor said. “I do believe we have a long way to go, but I do believe that Milwaukee has the right people to get us in the right direction and the right track to be a metro city.”
Nwabuzor is one of those people.
Nwabuzor is the founder of Envision Growth, a real estate development group that focuses on building healthy people and communities. She is also the director of community impact at the American Heart Association.
This upcoming fall, Nwabuzor will study the intersection between health and real estate at the Medical College of Wisconsin, where she plans to attend the Doctor of Public Health program.
“I’m trailblazing here and really connecting the dots between how built environments really play into one’s health and how we can actually use that as a strategy to improve the health of the community as well as the people who live within them,” Nwabuzor said.
Nwabuzor’s interest in health began in high school after she sustained an injury in high school. Growing up, Nwabuzor had been an avid basketball player, but when she tore the ligament in her left ankle, she struggled to get back into it.
But the passion for sports was still there and she viewed health as the potential correlation. She originally considered being an athletic trainer or physical therapist, but then changed her mind.
While she appreciated the health side of things, neither career path allowed much room for engagement. There was a disconnect, she said, and in the end, she landed on organization and communication with an emphasis on kinesiology for her undergraduate degree. Later, she obtained a master’s in business administration.
Through her work in the nonprofit sector at organizations such as United Way, Nwabuzor could focus on health in the community also known as public health.
Health, specifically public health, led Nwabuzor to real estate and development.
At the American Heart Association, Nwabuzor began doing more policy and systems change work, which allowed her to further explore how built environments from buildings to landscape impact one’s health. She’s been with the organization since 2018.
She began wondering why developers didn’t take these factors into consideration. While she recognized that the two industries are very separate, her work showed her that they didn’t have to be.
“I’m unorthodox in that lane and in that space,” she said. “I see the lanes being one and that is not very common.”
Through God, Nwabuzor realized that she could combine her passion for health and her interest in building community.
“Health is rooted in building community,” she said.
To Nwabuzor, the key to a successful community is a thriving ecosystem, a place where everyone has ample opportunity lead the quality of life they deserve. In a thriving ecosystem, individuals have access to quality, affordable and accessible social determinants of health from food to education to green space and everything in between.
Right now, too many communities in Milwaukee are lacking. While there’s greatness happening, the neglected communities experience disparities in the form of food, education, health care and more that in turn impact the life expectancy gap, Nwabuzor noted.
“Everyone should have a hand in the greatness that is going on or be able to experience the greatness,” she said. “When everyone isn’t able to experience that, it really starts to uncover the truth of what’s going on.”
Black Indigenous people of color are impacted the most, she said, and the ZIP codes with the highest vulnerability rating include 53204, 53205, 53206, 53209, 53215, 53216, 53218, 53223, 53224 and 53233.
“There’s a root to everything, there’s cause and effect,” she said. “And we try to address the effect versus addressing the root.”
When Nwabuzor begins school, she’ll be able to further study the link between life expectancy and the built environment and how that built environment can positively impact one’s life expectancy.
“We have to assure that we are actually creating something that is going to decrease that barrier, decrease that gap,” she said. “If we’re just building stuff and the gaps aren’t decreasing, then we have a problem on our hands.”
Built environments and real estate can be used as a strategy to mitigate barriers in health, she said.
In school, Nwabuzor will be able to align her background in health and policy change with her real estate experience. There’s innovation there, she said.
She hopes that the work she is doing to improve communities and create thriving ecosystems spreads and creates a trickle effect. Milwaukee isn’t alone in experiencing these disparities, she said, and other regions could benefit from this.
This summer, Nwabuzor will attend the Young Americans Leaders Program at Harvard Business School. The program allows young leaders to connect and share ideas on the work they’re doing to help their communities thrive.
As Nwabuzor looks ahead to the future, she hopes that people feel inspired to partner with her and join her on this vision.
“We’re greater together than by ourselves,” she said. “I’m hoping that I – with the vision – can create something that we – as a whole – can tap into and really make some change in our communities and really make a difference. The time is now.”