Two women admire a recently planted tree.
 Two women admire a recently planted tree.

2023 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner

The Rich Cultural Diversity of the Austin Community Strengthens the City's Commitment to Better Health

Everyone deserves the chance to reach their best health and wellbeing. Partners in Austin are embracing the city’s rich cultural diversity and, by being responsive to resident and neighborhood needs, advancing a Culture of Health that benefits everyone.  

Today in Austin’s Eastern Crescent neighborhoods, deep cross-sector partnerships are holding strong across communities, eliminating structural barriers to health and improving health equity in ways that hold promise to endure for generations.

Go Austin/Vamos Austin (GAVA) is a convening table for partnerships focused on building health and wellbeing with and for community residents who have been displaced by gentrification or other structural barriers. GAVA and its partners are committed to cross-sector partnerships and a community organizing approach that starts with listening to and responding to the needs of residents. The partnership is building health equity across four portfolios: Food Justice, Early Childhood Health, Climate Resilience, and Neighborhood Stability.

GAVA approaches its work with a community organizing model that incorporates history and culture while valuing the expertise that comes from lived experience. In fact, GAVA has intentionally built a staff who share similar lived experiences with the community members they serve. “A critical piece to our work is a focus on building trusting relationships with the community members we partner with and following their lead,” says Cassie Sodergren, GAVA’s Grants & Projects manager. “That’s something that we are intentional about.”

Like many cities, Austin has suffered from segregation and severe divisions that created divides and disparate health outcomes. Land use policies, redlining, and other inequitable planning practices and economic investments have increased chronic disease and created health disparities.

A woman plays a game with two young children. Loretta Johnson playing with magnetic tiles with King Johnson and Aiden Briggs at her family childcare facility.
Women walk along a nature path. Frances Acuna, GAVA’s Climate Resilience Lead Organizer, and Dove Springs neighborhood residents walk the Austin E. Williamson Creek Greenbelt with other community residents.
Four women and one man sit at a table with notepads. The Food Co-Op Steering Committee members meet after a tour of the Co-Op to discuss upcoming improvements they would like to see.

GAVA holds multiple partnerships across its four priority areas. A multi-sector produce distribution program with Urban Roots, a local farm, is one such partnership that is addressing food insecurity. It is run by residents who deliver affordable fresh produce to areas of Austin that are facing food insecurity, using a pay-what-you-can model that’s never more than $10 a box. This has led to residents and partners creating a business plan for a community-owned food cooperative. “We work hard at keeping the relationships we build with members of the community at the center of everything that we do. The food co-op is an example of that,” says Sydney Corbin, Urban Roots Community Engagement program manager.

When neighbors identified significant challenges in securing daycare for children, GAVA began working directly with childcare providers and parents to address the issue. Increasingly, the partnership has included the essential networks of friends, families, and neighbors who provide care for many working families. GAVA is working with the city and other partners to support these providers and build a systems- and policy-focused approach to advocate for the resources, professional development, and adequate compensation they need.

I think in a community, one informed person stepping up can make a difference and change the trajectory of any moment. And the power of dozens and then hundreds of regular folks, who aren’t typically recognized as extraordinary people, can move things.

—Carmen Llanes, executive director, Go Austin/Vamos Austin

Four people sit at a table talking. GAVA Organizer Kalu Forture James meets with Safaa Al Mahamid, Lai Ram Lian, and Jonathan Tan, to discuss the creation of a local neighborhood development organization.
A woman and man with a dog walk along a bridge. Austin residents enjoy a walk along the Congress Avenue Bridge.
Four people in a field removing weeds. Urban Roots Youth Fellows work together to remove weeds.

Partnerships across multiple sectors, from businesses to schools, have been key to GAVA’s success. It has engaged thousands of residents and partnered with more than 100 entities, from community-based organizations to universities to local governments and beyond. Working with the local government officials has led to millions of dollars in investments in parks and green spaces; consideration of a food co-op in food insecure Austin communities; passage of an official climate preparedness plan that includes the commitment of city resources; and more.

Governmental partnerships have also driven climate mitigation work. Flooding is a significant problem in Eastern Crescent neighborhoods. Floods in 2013 and 2015 caused widespread devastation and displacement and revealed Austin’s vulnerability and lack of preparedness to respond to natural disasters. So when GAVA became aware of impending updates to federal floodplain designations (that would place many more community members in floodplains), organizers teamed up with government agencies and university professors to improve emergency response; disaster preparedness; heat mitigation; climate resilience; and investments in green infrastructure, including improvements to the urban canopy to reduce heat and flood risk. Today, the partners’ Climate Resilience team advocates at the local level for equitable improvements to infrastructure and preparedness and at the federal level to make flood insurance more affordable to families with low incomes through payment plans and increased coverage.

By reflecting local values of cooperation and respect for cultural heritage, GAVA and its partners are creating organizing models that have a distinctly Austin flair and reflect the voices of residents who are pushing local systems toward a Culture of Health.

Two smiling women welcome children to a trauma center.

Celebrating Community

Culture of Health Prize winners Austin, Texas, and Baltimore, Md., are celebrating their communities, a key part of removing uneven barriers to wellbeing.
A smiling mother and daughter sit at a table in a room of people doing arts and crafts together.

RWJF Culture of Health Prize

The Prize celebrates communities where people and organizations are collaborating to build positive solutions to barriers that have created unequal opportunities for health and wellbeing.