Place Matters: Bringing Community Development and Health Leaders Together

Oct 15, 2013, 1:45 PM

file David Williams, Harvard School of Public Health and RWJF Commission to Build a Healthier America (photo credit: Alliance for Health Reform)

At the recent Place Matters conference in Washington, D.C., David Williams, PhD, the Norman Professor of Public Health at the Harvard School of Public Health and staff director of the reconvened Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America, talked about the need for cooperation between the community development industry and health leaders.

“Community development and health are working side by side in the same neighborhoods and often with the same residents but often don’t know each other or coordinate efforts.”

NewPublicHealth recently asked Dr. Williams about how synergies between the two fields can help improve population health.

>>View David Williams' PowerPoint presentation from the conference:

NewPublicHealth: Is there progress on the community development and health fields working together to help improve the health of communities?

David Williams: I would say there is increasing recognition by individuals both in health and in community development that they are two groups working in many ways on the same challenges and often in the same communities and in many ways there can be there could be synergy from working together. But I would also say that this is all so new, and I don’t think the field has matured in terms of our full understanding of where the potential is. To me, one of the greatest hungers out there is for people to see examples of success and progress and initiatives that in fact have worked well together, and we’re still in the beginnings of seeing that—such as the Federal Reserve healthy communities conferences, which have raised awareness levels and have begun to help similar initiatives. But we’re still in the infancy of really capitalizing on the potential.

One of the key challenges is that this area of healthy communities is a broader issue. And that includes the need to recognize the importance of a health in all policies approach—that policies in many sectors far removed from health have health consequences. A good example is the education sector—and having teachers recognize that they are themselves are health workers in a certain sense because the work they do can have such an important impact on health.

So, in converging the sectors there is still a lot to be learned, and lot that needs to be done.

NPH: The next generation report from the Commission to Build a Healthier America will focus on healthy communities and early childhood, and is scheduled to be released early next year. How is the report coming along?

David Williams: We are done with our investigating and are actively working on drafting the report and getting feedback from the commissioners to make sure we’re getting it right in terms of what needs to be said, elevated and highlighted.

NPH: What will be different from the last report?

David Williams: I think there are big differences this time. We entered the work on this second report with a clear set of marching orders on the two areas to focus on: healthy communities and early childhood. Last time we were much more open ended on what to focus in terms of gaps and opportunities.

Another thing we are planning to do, and have it even more developed than last time, is to have a section of the report that is a call to action for multiple sectors of society to encourage them to be engaged and to take the specific responsibility that they could fulfill. It’s not just government, but also so many other sectors, including business, the faith community and philanthropy. I think there is a message in the report for every sector of society. All of us can play a role in making America healthier.

NPH: Looking down the road, what do you think is a realistic time frame and what are realistic goals for making our communities healthier?

David Williams: One of the nice things is that this work is not happening in isolation. County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, for example, is an initiative that is already doing a lot to raise awareness levels, point to solutions at a local level and elevate success stories. The ultimate goal is to improve the health of people in every neighborhood. It will take a time. And hopefully as people see the benefits and the importance of these efforts, my dream would be that in a decade every neighborhood would be taking steps to improve health.

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