Walk With Us: Building Community Power and Connection for Health Equity

Aug 20, 2019, 12:00 PM, Posted by

What does it take to build community power? A community organizer-turned-funder shares first-hand insights to advance this learning journey.

A truck driver at a recycling facility.

While many think of the Bay Area of California as the center of big tech and wealth, my memories of Oakland take me back to its Port truck drivers. Working an average of 11 hours a day, waiting in long lines at the Port of Oakland to pick up their loads, truck drivers in the Bay Area were isolated—living in the rigs they decorated with photos of their children and families. You can guess all of the reasons this is unhealthy—stale air, diesel fumes, no bathrooms or opportunities for physical activity, just to name a few. Their days consisted of sitting...alone. And then driving cargo to a destination...alone.  

Like poor air quality, poor ergonomics and lack of physical activity, social isolation is also linked to poor health. Alternatively, people with more social connections live longer and are more likely to say they are in good health.

Back then, I was a campaign director advocating for environmental and occupational health protections for communities and workers. Part of my job included “walking the line” with faith leaders, visiting these truck drivers as they sat in their cabs and waited in long lines outside the Port to pick up a load. Some of them were recent immigrants working to support families back home. Most of them made low incomes, barely living paycheck to paycheck after paying for the cost of their $250,000 (or more) rigs. All of them worked grueling hours. We asked about their families, brought them food and water, faith leaders provided blessings, and we all encouraged them to get out of their cabs to socialize with each other. We also helped them advocate for access to bathrooms, cleaner air, and the power to improve working conditions.


Although I’m no longer out “walking the line,” I’m still helping to support communities to build social connection and power, particularly for low income residents and residents of color who are especially affected by poverty, systemic racism, and other challenges.


Here’s what this looks like at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). RWJF’s “north star” is building a Culture of Health so that everyone, no matter who they are, where they live, or how much money they make, has a fair and just opportunity to live the healthiest life possible. We aim to build capacity in communities to enable them to remove social and economic obstacles to health, including powerlessness.

Investing in Power

We have a long history of support for “community power building” in tobacco cessation, access to health care, childhood obesity, and, more recently, school discipline and worker rights. Just a few examples include:

  • In 2004, we funded Tobacco Policy Change, which worked intensively with low-income and Native American communities and with communities of color to build coalition campaigns for tobacco control policies. We sought out agencies that had credibility within their communities even if they lacked expertise in health, including groups that had worked on safety, Main Street redevelopment, and housing.

  • In 2011, we worked with the Funders' Collaborative on Youth Organizing to increase resources to the field of youth organizing and promote the leadership of low-income young people and young people of color in social justice organizing.

  • More recently, we’ve continued our focus on capacity building with national civic and faith organizations with chapters, members and volunteers around the country, including NAACP, UnidosUS (formerly National Council of La Raza), Faith in Action (formerly PICO National Network), and the YMCA

  • Our Voices for Healthy Kids initiative is making it easier for all children to eat healthy foods and be active and Forward Promise is strengthening communities that raise and empower boys and young men of color.

  • Last year, we completed a philanthropy scan to learn how funders view and apply community power to their work.

Support for community power building has always been a part of our work to improve health. That said, our more explicit focus on health equity is necessitating a new and more explicit focus on community power building.  

Walk With Us

A call for proposals (CFP) was released, deadline: September 24, 2019, to build an understanding of the range of methods applied in innovative and effective community base-building that result in changes to community-level social, economic, and physical conditions that we know influence health and equity. 

Base-building is a set of strategies and activities used by residents, workers, consumers, and other constituencies to build collective strength and power to address a variety of inequitable conditions in communities. Base-building has been utilized for generations by grassroots-led organizations and institutions to build power specifically in historically excluded or underrepresented populations. 

We are seeking research proposals whose project teams will participate alongside other field and research experts in RWJF’s Lead Local program, which is exploring the question: how does community power catalyze, create, and sustain conditions for healthy communities?

Lead Local: Exploring Community-Driven Change and the Power of Collective Action is seeking to: 

  • Deepen understanding of how power and power building operates in place;

  • Build greater understanding of how to measure and track the impacts of base building, as a core aspect of community power building;

  • Create shared understanding amongst collaborative members of how community power informs the conditions for health equity.

This CFP will support research projects led by a collaboration between a grassroots-led organization(s) and a researcher(s), with the anticipated grant recipient to be a grassroots-led organization(s).  

While it’s a far cry from my days of “walking the line” alongside neighbors and faith leaders, this opportunity to learn more about the strategies used by residents, workers, consumers, and other constituencies to build collective power and address inequitable conditions in communities serves as a reminder that we don’t have to walk alone.   


About the author

Aditi Vaidya

Aditi Vaidya joined RWJF in 2017 as a senior program officer working toward the goal of building community power to support a Culture of Health. With her far-reaching expertise in organizing, environmental health, economic justice, corporate accountability, and worker rights issues, she seeks to employ these skills to help communities promote health equity. Read her full bio.