County Health Rankings: Creating Community Leaders

Apr 23, 2012, 3:47 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Much of what influences our health happens outside of the doctor’s office—in our schools, workplaces and neighborhoods. To improve the health of all Americans, our communities need leadership and action beyond health care providers. Throughout the United States, organizations led by innovative and action-oriented leaders are making the difference.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Maya Rockeymoore, MA, PhD, director of Leadership for Health Communities (LHC), a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about their efforts to make communities healthier places to live through leadership development. The program is designed to support local and state policy-makers in their efforts to reduce childhood obesity through public policies that promote active living, healthy eating and access to healthy foods.

NewPublicHealth: From your experience as director of Leadership for Health Communities, what does it mean to have a healthy community?

Maya Rockeymoore: It means that the environment in which you live supports your health and wellness over a lifetime. So that means you’ve got clean air, clean water, safe places to get physical activity, an environment that is actually built and structured to support your ability to get to places by walking or biking or certainly mass transit. Healthy communities are ones where you can access fresh foods affordably and the total environment is violence free. It’s safe. The total environment supports the individual’s health and wellness. That is a healthy community.

NPH: How do you foster champions for obesity prevention among policy-makers?

Maya Rockeymoore: What we do is we work through associations of policy-makers so that they can educate their members and support their leadership. And once we identify champions, we really focus on supporting them, providing them with technical assistance, highlighting their efforts in the media and supporting and reporting their accomplishments at the national level. We bring them to conferences where they can talk about their accomplishments. Our biannual Summit is one way that we also support that. We also provide awards to policy-makers who are champions to highlight their successes and show other policy-makers what can be done.

NPH: What are some success stories you’ve seen among your grantees in creating healthier communities?

Maya Rockeymoore: Our grantees have worked across the board with policy-makers at the state and local level to promote healthy communities, whether that is making sure that the built environment supports the ability to be physically active, complete street policies, green space in communities and supporting walkable neighborhoods with complete and connected sidewalks. They’ve also focused on healthy eating, some before the Federal government began improving standards. We also have policy-makers who are focused on addressing food deserts, making sure that communities have access to fresh foods, whether that is through supermarkets, farmers’ markets or green corner stores.

NPH: How can the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps help you in your work to build healthier communities?

Maya Rockeymoore: What the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps does is show policy-makers where they stand vis-à-vis their neighbors, and that does several things, including spurring them to action. It certainly highlights and brings attention to areas that need to be addressed. It gives them a roadmap to address factors that might still be unaddressed, and shows them where there might be areas for improvement. It also offers ideas for a course of action for making those improvements.

NPH: What kinds of policy trends are you seeing at the local level to help prevent obesity?

Maya Rockeymoore: We’re seeing a number of trends—certainly the expansion of farmers’ markets has been one obvious trend. We’ve seen community gardens expanding. We’ve also seen, an expansion of these joint use agreements that seek to promote physical activity by making sure that the communities have access to schools and school children have access to community resources to support their physical activity.

NPH: Can you speak about some of the complex issues related to obesity? And at a local level, how can communities begin to unpack that complexity and make a difference?

Maya Rockeymoore: We have begun to look at this very systematically, through a series that we call our “Making the Connection” briefs. We believe that almost every factor in a society can be connected back to obesity prevention. There are a number of factors in communities—community safety, transportation, housing, education—that actually play into the health and wellness of the population, and most people don’t understand that connection.

What County Health Rankings does, through the various factors that they highlight, such as the unemployment rate and educational attainment of the population, is it begins to show policy-makers and community members that there are evidence-backed links between certain neighborhood-level and community-level factors and the health of the population. So with that, communities can use the County Health Rankings to help point to those linkages.

NPH: What are the things that you’re doing to increase the awareness of partnerships with other fields that may help impact the public’s health?

Maya Rockeymoore: That’s actually a common thread in our work. When we work through policy-maker associations, we encourage partnerships across organizations. Part of what we highlight is that partnerships can help to leverage resources, and they can help to create more effective and more positive outcomes. Partnerships, especially in this era of tight budgets, can actually help to accomplish goals that otherwise might not be accomplished by single entities. So, we focus on intergovernmental partnerships, states partnering with localities and counties to do what needs to be done and leveraging resources in that way. We also focus on public/private partnerships so that private partners and corporations or philanthropic organizations can partner with governmental agencies to get things done, as well as partnerships across the same level of government.

For example, at the city level, we really focus on making sure that all of the agencies in a targeted city are aware of their important role in addressing this issue and working across agencies in order to support the goal of health and wellness for kids and certainly for communities. Cities we’ve worked with include San Antonio and Washington, D.C., where we’ve held half-day training institutes. We bring in the city leaders from across agencies, help to set a table for them to talk about the issues from their perspective, to get technical assistance, to understand the research and then to do planning about how they will work together in the future in order to promote healthy kids and healthy communities. And it involves everybody from the mayor’s office, to the police department, to the office of planning, to the transportation department, to the city school districts. This has been an exciting of way for us to highlight the importance of partnerships, but most importantly make partnerships work for communities.

>>Bonus Recommended Reading: Leadership for Healthy Communities developed an Action Strategies Toolkit with policy and program strategies related to active living and healthy eating. The policy options were reviewed based on a scan of more than 100 research articles that linked specific policy actions to positive outcomes in healthy eating and physical activity behaviors, with a focus on research in vulnerable communities.


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