Minnesota’s Healthy Communities Conference 2013: Q&A with Paul Mattessich and Ela Rausch

Nov 21, 2013, 2:45 PM, Posted by


A conference in St. Paul, Minn., earlier this month examined ideas and emerging examples for building a healthier Minnesota by promoting the integration of health-related programs and community development to address health where we live, learn, work and play. The conference was convened by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota and Wilder Research, the research arm of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. The gathering, which was a follow-up to an initial conference on the intersection of health and community development held in Minnesota a year ago, highlighted current successful cross-sector efforts throughout the state.

Elaine Arkin, manager of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America, was a keynote speaker at the conference. Her remarks included the announcement that the Commission’s recommendations on early childhood and supporting healthy communities will be released in early 2013.

The highlighted projects included a task force on increasing access to healthier foods, often an obstacle in poorer communities; locating needed services alongside senior housing; a stable housing concept for people at risk of homelessness following a hospital stay; and a project underway to give kids living in trailer parks a safe place to play.

“The strategy that we used this year in engaging people with actual examples...was very effective in really acknowledging that this work is messy, that it does take time and that in order to keep people enthusiastic about it sometimes it does require giving people a pat on the back even just for the small progress that they’ve made,” said Ela Rausch, community development project manager of the Federal Reserve of Minnesota.

Following the conference, NewPublicHealth spoke with Ela Rausch and Paul Mattessich, PhD, Executive Director of Wilder Research.

NewPublicHealth: What were the key goals of this year’s meeting?

Paul Mattessich: The overarching goal is at the national level to bring together public health with community development finance in order to better address health issues, social determinants of health and improved community health. But what we did the first time a year ago was to try to get the two sectors to understand what each other does, what their vocabulary was, how best to work together and to start some networking.

This year the goal was to take the next step and highlight some examples where this cross-sector collaboration occurred, and to use that to try to further that even more and to underscore the fact that the two sectors really do address the same end goal, even though they do it in different ways. And if they team up they can do it more effectively.

NPH: What were some differences between last year’s meeting and this year’s meeting?

Ela Rausch: One thing that was different is that our initial meeting was an invitation-only meeting and we really targeted executive level leadership from the participating organizations to get the groups to the table and to get their buy-in to demonstrate the seriousness of the conversation. This year the conference was open to the public. We specifically wanted to draw in the people who do the work on the ground—at the Program Director, Program Manager and Program Coordinator levels—who are in communities implementing the strategies that we’re trying to promote. Last year’s meeting was more theoretical and this year’s meeting was very much focused on what we are doing together and the ingredients that make those projects successful.

NPH: What were some of the promising things that you heard?

Mattessich: My impression was that yes, people were saying “Oh, I  get it more now.” I think we still have a ways to go, but we’re a good distance down the road from last year when people were more likely to be puzzled on how the two sectors work together. Now they’re looking forward to the successes the collaborations can produce. What can do we do practically? How can we move ahead?  

Rausch: I would agree. I think in some ways this follow-up meeting was really a good temperature-taking or benchmarking for us to really understand where we are in bringing the two sectors together. Our conference this year was centered around a call for cross-sector projects that address social determinants of health, and we had some programs call ahead to say they were interested but weren’t sure how they fit into the collaboration. I think that’s one of the things that we’re still working on, providing people the tools to be able to tell their story or frame their story in a way that makes sense to the other sectors, and that allows them to see themselves as having a role at the table and being a valuable partner in those projects.

A good collaboration example is that the City of Minneapolis Public Health Department is giving grants to small businesses to improve environmental health. We also had a number of projects that address health through supportive housing. We’re continuing work on getting the developers to understand that they do play an important role in addressing these social determinants of health.

NPH: What’s next?

Rausch: One of the things that we talked about at our conference this year was building the evidence base for these cross-sector projects and what works. And a large majority of our participants indicated that they’d really like more information on using data and measures to evaluate the progress of these healthy community initiatives, so I think that’s one thing that we might look at.

When the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America releases their new recommendations early next year, I think we’ll all be looking to those to see what next steps we can take to help support their implementation.  

>>Bonus Links:

  • View the poster presentations showcasing examples of collaboration from the Minnesota Healthy Communities Conference.
  • Read a report on collaboration for healthier communities by Wilder Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota prepared for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America.
  • Read a recent NewPublicHealth interview with David Erickson of the Federal Reserve of San Francisco on health and community development cross collaboration. 

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