Lessons from Culture of Health Prize Winners in the Northeast

Oct 26, 2016, 4:00 PM, Posted by Amy Slonim

Past prize-winners recently convened to discuss their experiences. They share powerful lessons on how they are improving health and health equity within their communities.  

We started the day with an icebreaker.

“I harness the collective power of leaders, partners, and community members,” read the moderator.

“That’s me!” shouted the group of several dozen people gathered on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., for a reunion of sorts. They came from diverse sectors and systems—from health care, education, nonprofits and government agencies—and their communities all had this in common: They are past winners of the RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

Each year, RWJF honors and elevates U.S. communities that are making great strides in their journey to better health and well-being. So far, 27 places—cities, counties, tribes, and more—across the country have claimed the distinction of receiving the Prize.

This year, communities across the United States have until November 3rd to apply for the Prize. Winners will receive up to $25,000 and have their stories spread broadly to inspire others toward locally-driven change.

Prize-winning communities become ambassadors for the idea that we can build a nation in which everyone has an equal opportunity for health. They also join a network that is diligently striving to improve the health and health equity of their communities, long after gaining recognition through the Prize.

Earlier this year, six of those communities, all within a day’s drive of each other in the Northeast, came together to network, learn, and share best practices and the joys and challenges of their work to improve health in their communities. The convening left me deeply impressed with how tirelessly committed participants are to tackling new challenges and to sharing as well as learning from other communities.

Just last week, this year’s seven winning communities were celebrated at a learning event in Princeton, and many of the same themes emerged—when communities come together to share and learn, the ripple effects are powerful.

While each community embodies unique strengths and history, many face common challenges, including poverty, education gaps, lack of affordable housing and transportation, and disparities in residents’ access to health care and healthy food. Prize-winners know from experience that adapting and tailoring the tactics other communities use can help them make new inroads within their own neighborhoods. This is where the value of the Prize network comes in.

“Put your hands up if you already know everything you need to know,” said Elecia Miller of the Mayor’s Health Task Force in Lawrence, Mass., on an alumni panel at the Prize celebration and learning event last week. Not surprisingly, no hands were raised.  “We all have something we can learn from each other. Together, we all have that many more resources we can call on.”

Here are some lessons our Northeast Prize-winners shared, with updates and examples from the 2016 winners’ stories:

Always be open to new ideas.

Fernando Tirado, of The Bronx, N.Y.’s Neighborhood Action Center, learned that the population of many geographically larger counties is significantly smaller than that of just one of The Bronx’s 12 community districts—and that new knowledge got him thinking. So far, The Bronx’s health promotion efforts have emphasized a countywide sense of identity and urgency. But Tirado says that at the convening, “We learned that perhaps we could benefit from tailored strategies for each of the community districts we serve,” with a focus on the most pressing social and economic factors for each district.

A similar willingness to think differently and change things up is evident in 2016 Prize-winner Manchester, N.H. When the city unveiled a new Neighborhood Health Improvement Strategy, a prominent local grant-maker took the opportunity to change the way it allocates funds. That meant funding fewer programs and focusing on collaborative, multi-year projects launched as part of the citywide strategy.

Bike sharing has many benefits.

Like many of the best initiatives, bike-sharing services promote multiple goals. In Cambridge, Mass., and other cities, shared bikes give people a healthy transportation option, are “cleaner” for the environment than cars or buses, and get people moving. To encourage biking, Cambridge holds biking safety workshops, gives free bike-share memberships to city employees, and is introducing a subsidy for high-school students to help them afford membership. Cambridge’s bike-sharing system, the Hubway, is a partnership with its neighbors, Boston; Somerville, Mass.; and Brookline, Mass. Started in 2011, the program may be one of the reasons the number of people bicycling in Cambridge has tripled in 10 years. Jennifer Lawrence, sustainability planner for the City of Cambridge, said membership is rising slowly because the program succeeds at getting people hooked on bicycle riding, which leads some to buy their own bikes and ditch their memberships. There’s also some evidence that public biking reduces risk of injury for all bikers, as both drivers and bikers get better at sharing the road, and that’s been the case in Cambridge, where crash rates have declined since 2010.

2016 Prize winner Santa Monica, Calif.’s bike-share program is supported by 107 miles of new bike lanes the city has built in recent years.

Listen to people who are struggling to find out what they really need.

Representatives from Everett, Mass., said many immigrants to the United States arrive healthy, but within a generation, their children struggle with health issues related to the stress of immigration. “It’s not because you need cooking classes in Spanish,” said Kathleen O’Brien of the Everett Community Health Partnership. Underlying issues point to inequity, such as an inability to buy healthy food because of high rents. Collecting such stories from residents has led Everett to address housing affordability.

The Pacific Northwest’s Columbia Gorge Region, a 2016 Prize-winner, has focused on making its Community Advisory Council, mandated by Oregon to advise on Medicaid spending and health improvements, a true voice for people directly affected by regional health services and programs. The council has become the primary vehicle for community voice and feedback on a variety of health-related issues and initiatives.

Urban gardening can be about more than growing produce.

Representatives from Everett reported that they were planning to learn more from Lawrence and The Bronx about how they use urban farms to promote workforce development and provide opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, respectively.

In the 2016 Prize-winning community of Louisville, Ky., urban gardening is a component of YouthBuild Louisville, a program based on a national model with the dual mission of training young people in construction and building affordable housing. Program participants—many of whom are young parents—earn high school diplomas and acquire the skills to work in one of four career tracks: construction, environmental design, nursing assistant and culinary arts.

Partnering is an art, and trust is the canvas.

Vilma Martínez-Dominguez of Lawrence’s mayor’s health taskforce, said for her city a best practice is the “art of partnering.” To collaborate over the long haul, she said partners must have deep and broad understanding of each other’s culture, programs, and strengths; a lot of relationships at all staffing levels, as well as a way to engage community leaders without “official” organizational titles; and a common vision and unity around community priorities.

Tirado said a Culture of Health flows from a culture of trust—both between partners and among leaders, as well as with residents themselves. “It’s important for local health departments to find a balance between achieving the city leadership’s directives and working with the community to address their needs and provide them the resources and technical assistance needed to be a part of the solution in undoing health inequities,” he said.

To me, our work to build a Culture of Health is like a flock of starlings moving across the sky. There’s a magic to the movement forward, and Prize-winners and communities all across the country are creating that magical wave. Our alumni network helps the flock grow larger and the wave spread further, and keeps it going where it has already taken flight.

Does your community have what it takes to be a Culture of Health Prize-winner? Learn more about the Prize criteria and apply by the November 3rd deadline. If your community is looking to learn more before applying, watch Risa’s interview with 2016 Prizewinners.

Amy Slonim is a senior program officer at RWJF. Read her full bio here.