Engaging Partners and "Pillars of the Community"

Oct 31, 2012, 8:10 AM

West Oakland residents West Oakland residents

Back in 2003, officials from the city of Oakland approached the head of the Alameda County Public Health Department to figure out how to collaborate to tackle the growing problem of violence. They began working together, and with the community, to figure out what was going on. Through a series of rigorous, door-to-door community surveys and community forums, they discovered a complex web of interrelated community issues—as well as a number of powerful community assets and existing partnerships.

Alameda County public health officials presented at the APHA annual meeting on a session about the role of community partners in community-based public health.

Alameda is a county of opposites, according to Liz Maker, Evaluation Specialist at Alameda County Public Health Department—some very poor, some doing amazingly well and in some cases those sections are separated only by a block or a fence.

Sobrante Park youth activists Sobrante Park youth activists at a community-wide youth event that they coordinated

The City-County Neighborhood Initiative, a partnership between the Alameda County Public Health Department, the City of Oakland, neighborhood resident groups, community-based organizations, the Oakland Unified School District and the University of California, Berkeley, was created to empower residents and support grassroots efforts to create safer neighborhoods and reduce inequities. Partners include a homeowners association, a large community reform church, and local neighborhood committees.

Ballet Folklorico Ballet Folklorico performs at Sobrante Park health fair

“The reason we got together was that the problems we were seeing when we asked, ‘what is making you unwell?’ were things traditionally unlinked to health such as violence and blight,” said German Martinez, program specialist for the Alameda health department.

The effort focuses on grassroots organizing, literally going door to door at the beginning of the initiative, as well as tapping into critical community organizations.

“Organizations who are the pillars of the community – schools, churches – are likely aligned and already working on the critical issues in the community.”

The project has seen many successes, not least of which is that where before it was a huge struggle to get people from the community to come to the table, now it’s easy. People are connected, the relationships are in place and community members feel empowered to catalyze changes that lead to a healthier community.

One example of a project funded through the initiative, but driven by the community, is a West Oakland Mini-Grant Committee, which is a community-led granting program that trains community members to serve on a grant-making committee to administer small grants of $100 to $2,000 for projects such as recreational play areas, hiking trips and sports classes, healthy cooking classes, a youth survey and scholarships to summer camps. 

Sobrante Park resident Resident recruiting for Sobrante Park community effort

For example, the city funded the construction of a $15 million new teen center—but there was no money for programming. Mini-grants supported community organizing to develop engaging programs to make the space come to life and really engage the community’s teens.

Lincoln Casimere, Community Capacity Building Coordinator at the Alameda County Health Department, described the approach: “The city’s providing a space—now make it a home.”

Alameda public health officials were joined at the session by a wide variety of presenters looking at the role of community partners in everything from research, academic projects, community development, public health interventions and more. Lucinda Cowboy of the Department of Family & Community Medicine at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, presented on a project to engage diverse communities in research on health disparities.

“The motivation behind this is within New Mexico, there is still a lot of mistrust of research. It has to take a lot of building this relationship through ongoing communications. We’re probably one of this first doing this kind of assessment and dialogues within the communities,” said Cowboy.

When asked the value of the project, Cowboy said, “Having this kind of self-reflection within the institution is very important. Even when we’re interviewing researchers they have an ‘aha’ moment when we ask, ‘are you doing research in, on or with a community?’ Having the discussion opens their eyes. After we assess this, we’re hoping to share the information with the leaders from the institution to share what we heard. It’s about putting it on them to hold themselves accountable for how they work with communities.”

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.