Residents enjoy Town Center, one of Columbia’s ten villages, along the shores of Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia, MD.
Residents enjoy Town Center, one of Columbia’s ten villages, along the shores of Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia, MD.

2020–2021 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner

Howard County’s ‘People-Driven’ Journey Toward Health Equity


Denise Boston was in the ninth grade when she and her family moved to Howard County, Maryland, in 1970, in search of a good life in the new community of Columbia.

They were drawn to the vision of urban planner and real estate developer James Rouse, who founded what is now Maryland’s second-largest city—located between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.—in the late 1960s as a green-space-studded, community-oriented “garden for growing people.”

Nearly 20 years after the Bostons came here, Erika Strauss Chavarria’s parents made a home in this county with a similar desire.

Today, the two women are among many Howard County residents working to create a model community where everyone can thrive: Dr. Boston is Howard County’s first equity and restorative practices manager, tasked with listening to residents and ensuring that county-government policies, practices, and services are equitable. Strauss Chavarria teaches Spanish at her alma mater, Wilde Lake High School, while also running Columbia Community Cares, a social and food justice nonprofit.

A lot of people in the county are going to be OK no matter what. We have to focus on folks who might not be OK, and make sure everyone is living their best life.

—Calvin Ball, county executive, Howard County, Maryland

A policeman handing out emergency preparedness kits.

Howard County, Maryland

Community leaders, partners, and residents purposefully shift resources to those who need it most.

“We have a deep commitment to provide for all,” said Angela Cabellon, Howard County’s chief innovation officer. “And we’re doing it in a way that’s data-informed and people-driven.”

The county’s intentional, inclusive philosophy is inspired in part by what Rouse aimed to accomplish. And today’s Howard County also has taken many steps to ensure diverse and equitable leadership and to boost equity—of opportunity, of access to the factors driving health, and of civic participation—among its 325,000 residents. They’ve worked to create affordable housing with dignity, improve workforce and business opportunities for those previously left behind, and take an equitable approach to community safety.

“A lot of people in the county are going to be OK no matter what,” said Calvin Ball, elected Howard County’s first Black county executive in 2018. “We have to focus on folks who might not be OK, and make sure everyone is living their best life.”

Students ride their bikes to Dunloggin Middle School. Howard County’s Complete Streets policy prioritizes safety for all modes of transit.

Dr. Denise Boston, the Equity and Restorative Practices Manager for Howard County Government, leads an Equity Advisory Committee meeting.

Denise Boston, Howard County’s equity and restorative practices manager, at an Equity Advisory Committee meeting.

[NOTE: Film crew has the releases/names for everyone here]
The Howard County Food Bank provides a dignified experience for those who needs its services. It offers a grocery-store-like environment where people can “shop” for fresh and canned foods as well as health and hygiene products.

Howard County Food Bank was designed to look and feel like a grocery store, where people can pick out their own food items.

A prime example is the county’s well-regarded school system. Most students are doing well—nearly 94 percent of eligible seniors graduated in 2020, for example. But “when you disaggregate the data, who is left behind?” Ball asked.

The answer: Black students, especially Black boys, said Strauss Chavarria, who served alongside other residents to develop the county’s first school equity policy, which was mandated by the state of Maryland and passed by Howard County’s school board in 2020. 

“We wanted to make sure the policy had some teeth t it,” Strauss Chavarria said. When fully implemented, it is meant to boost equity in all aspects of the education system, from early literacy to suspensions and expulsions to enrollment in advanced classes to graduation rates.

In August, the county’s racial equity task force—composed of more than 60 community researchers, policymakers, nonprofit and business executives, students, and activists—made wide-ranging recommendations that policymakers are currently studying. They include advocating for a higher state minimum wage; making childcare more available to low-wage workers; desegregating neighborhoods by allowing a wide variety of housing types and prices; and removing barriers to resident participation in the legislative process. 

Already the county has closed gaps for households whose incomes are not low enough to qualify for some federal and state services but who still struggle financially. A change in county policy opened up eligibility to many programs, such as food banks and childcare, to these families.

Winning the Culture of Health Prize affirms the county’s spirit of compassion and striving for an ever-better future with a broad definition of health and a focus on changing policies and systems to boost equity and remove barriers. 

“It inspires us to keep reaching, to keep pushing,” Ball said. “And my hope is it will inspire other jurisdictions around the state and the nation.”

A young girl tending plants in a greenhouse.

Recognizing Communities Working Toward Better Health

The Culture of Health Prize honors and elevates U.S. communities working at the forefront of advancing health, opportunity, and equity for all.