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Collaborative approach key to changing systems, creating community resilience


Stacey Barbas

Deep-rooted disparities in our laws and public policies, and in our public and private institutions, have denied equal opportunity to individuals and communities and helped create economic, health, and climate crises that have exposed and exacerbated inequities.

But as former President Barack Obama once said, “Change happens because people demand it.” Communities across the U.S. have the expertise and experience to design solutions that change systems, services and practices to achieve equitable outcomes. By tapping into their expertise, we can change how we think about what is possible and build a new system of health for all of us.

In order to successfully design policies that achieve equitable health outcomes, it is critical to involve those who will be impacted the most – a community’s stakeholders. This includes residents, businesses, local nonprofit organizations, community groups and local health departments, among others.

Community perspectives are important to consider throughout the policy development process, particularly when developing solutions that will meet the needs of communities, and in understanding how well those solutions are working on the ground.

With deep subject matter expertise and close ties to residents’ realities on the ground, community organizations can provide input and ideas about how to address any challenges.

However, with pressing operational needs and thin operating margins, community organizations often find it difficult to make engaging in public policy a priority, even when it’s important to their respective missions. To ensure that the perspectives of the community are reflected in policy development and design, philanthropy needs to invest in that capacity.

With ARPA and other unprecedented opportunities to access federal funding, success will lie in the ability of nonprofit organizations abilities to apply for, and effectively use, these federal dollars.

At Kresge, and particularly for our Health team, we work to support communities’ ability to affect policy that it is generated, led supported and informed by community. Community engagement builds and sustains cohesive communities, leads to improved health outcomes, builds community power, helps local governments promote sustainable decisions, and establishes long-standing effective partnerships between government organizations and communities, resulting in a greater sense of community ownership.

Here are just two examples of organizations and coalitions we support to help build community capacity to advocate for policies:

  • Right to the City Alliance and its member organizations weave together local on-the-ground organizing, policy, and advocacy campaigns to build a robust national movement for inclusive, healthy housing and community development.
  • The Equitable Food Oriented Development Collaborative, which emerged from decades of work by community-based food systems organizations, works to ensure food system change always includes those it affects the most, and builds solutions for community ownership and sustainability rooted in social justice.

People with greater feelings of support and inclusion within their networks feel a greater sense of social cohesion, may live longer, and respond better to stress than those isolated from their communities. Cross-sector efforts are needed to redesign the conditions of our social, built and natural environments to promote health equity and improve social determinants of health.

To achieve improved health outcomes for all people, we must look to thoughtfully and meaningfully engage members of our communities whose voices are often ignored. Collaborative, community-led, multi-sector approaches to changing policies and systems can address the conditions that hold disparities in place and create community resilience.

For more from the Health Team’s National Public Health Week series, read: