A group of people sitting around a room and talking.
A group of people sitting around a room and talking.

2023 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner

Bridging Divides to Change Systems From Within Ramsey County

No one should have to overcome barriers to their health and the health of their communities. Ramsey County communities are proactive in building their own future, healing past wrongs, and removing barriers to wellness so that everyone in the community can thrive. Located in the heart of the Twin Cities region of St. Paul, Minnesota, Ramsey County’s Rondo neighborhood was once flourishing, with a tight-knit Black community, known as the “Harlem of the North,” where the culture and economy prospered with Black-owned businesses, social clubs, newspapers, and more. But in the 1950s and 1960s, the city of St. Paul built a highway that literally split the community apart, leading to the loss of millions of dollars in Black intergenerational and community wealth.

True to the community spirit that first built Rondo, its children and Ramsey County's Black residents are once again taking steps to not only improve health and wellbeing, but also reclaim their voice in setting public policy and making decisions in the county.

Black leadership and community partnership are central to this approach. After years of experiencing harmful policies, practices, and processes from the county, community leaders in Ramsey County catalyzed collective action through partnership to regain self-determination, which is the definition of the word Kujichagulia.

Two people standing looking at a board with black and white photos, the board reads, “History of Rondo.” Understanding the history of the Rondo Neighborhood through community tours is central to the work in Ramsey County.
A view of the city of St. Paul with buildings, roads with cars, and some greenery.  The people of St. Paul are working together to build health equity rooted in Black leadership and community partnership.
: a group of people gathering around a conference table. A projector screen is on the wall showing virtual attendees via Zoom. The Black Community Commission on Health meets at the Cultural Wellness Center office to prepare for a county budget meeting.

This led to the creation of what eventually became Kujichagulia 2.0, a government, nonprofit, and community project launched by Ramsey County Black community leaders alongside staffers who brought back a five-year effort from 2003 that ended prematurely, disappointing the community. Version 2.0 builds on previous work to change systems from within and increase community power through knowledge-building. Community members are now essential contributors to shared decisions made about their community’s health and wellbeing.

“This is an active community-building, community engagement, and community reconnection process,” says Elder Atum Azzahir, executive director of the Cultural Wellness Center, a community-based nonprofit that supports self-wellness by creating space “to be free and Black.” “What I admire is that [the county] knows community is a major measure of health and wellbeing.”

Kujichagulia 2.0 is a unique collaboration among the Cultural Wellness Center; Ramsey County; Black leadership within the county; and the Black Community Commission on Health (BCC). Making Black community feedback integral to county decisionmaking has been central to accountability and progress. The partnership has a shared goal of eliminating systemic racism that’s currently embedded in systems across the county, impacting health, housing, education, career opportunities, and more.

The county recognizes the need to dismantle systemic racism. The Ramsey County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution that unanimously declared that “Racism is a public health crisis” soon after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. At that time, they had also already begun to center racial equity in the County’s policy agenda. County public service leaders and staff see value for everyone involved when partnerships are created with the community.

“Understanding ‘partner’ as a verb, not a noun … increases county effectiveness and reinforces a community-family investment system,” says Sara Hollie, director of Saint Paul-Ramsey County Public Health. “The transfer, sharing, and production of knowledge and stronger partnerships is one of the greatest successes I’ve seen so far.”

Kujichagulia 2.0 has taken concrete steps to address the highway-related displacement and other disenfranchisement of the Black community. The partnership is focusing on addressing displacement as a community-identified priority, given the significant impact those policies have had on health and wellbeing of residents. The partnership is approaching this across three pillars of work. The first pillar is Community Health Action teams (CHATS). CHATS sessions are advocacy workgroups that create a space to share community stories and knowledge.

This is an active community-building, community engagement, and community reconnection process. What I admire is that [the county] knows community is a major measure of health and wellbeing.

—Elder Atum Azzahir, executive director, Cultural Wellness Center

The second pillar is the BCC, which is made up of Ramsey County residents, African American cultural elders, and representatives from key Black community organizational partners. BCC leads the CHATS sessions, listening to community members talk about their needs, concerns and vision of health. The BCC documents and then shares community feedback themes, system pain points, and community-identified solutions with Ramsey County directors and leaders. These collaborations result in reforms that enhance service quality and program effectiveness in the community.

“Some of the greatest successes are the ways the BCC’s community work shows up in the county’s decisionmaking process,” says Terrence Brown, director-in-residence at the Cultural Wellness Center. “We have seen this impact in how the Public Health team and other teams in the county create grants that go directly to the community or bring the community in to partner with them.”

A group of people sitting around in a room. Two people are standing in the front speaking. Lateshia Carter of the Cultural Wellness Center’s Trusted Messenger Program speaks with a group of South Asian and Southeast Asian elders brought together by the Wilder Foundation, who share concerns, and all work in partnership to collectively identify solutions and resources.
Three people standing around leaning on bikes and talking. Kyra Miles, Carmen De Souza Bronshteyn and Vladimir Bronshteyn chat before beginning the Slow Roll, a community bike ride led by Anthony Taylor and the Cultural Wellness Center. Slow Roll focuses on building community while exploring art, history, and culture in the Twin Cities.
A group of people standing side by side and holding their hands together. Minkara Tezet, of the Cultural Wellness Center, helps lead a group activity during the Rites of Passage gathering, which brings together men across generations to share their lived experiences and develop a sense culturally grounded manhood so they can become stronger, more empathetic leaders in their community.


The third pillar is the Community Resource Board and Transformational Leadership team. Established in 2021, the board—which is comprised of invited leaders from public health, social services, health and wellness, and other county departments—strengthens the BCC by leveraging social, cultural, and financial resources.

There are other efforts in place as part of Kujichagulia 2.0, such as putting community members in leadership roles to hold Ramsey County accountable during decisionmaking processes and establishing a mutual understanding of how to create a sustainable relationship between the county and the Black community. Ramsey County is also a partner in ReConnect Rondo, a program to restore the neighborhood, including through cultural events such as Rondo Day parades, festivals, block parties, and more.“It’s a powerful thing to see the community receive shared authority to make decisions together about resources and resource allocation as part of a partnership,” says Elder Atum.

By reclaiming power and being active partners, community leaders in Ramsey County have become key thought leaders who know what their community is made of and what they deserve. Community members are calling on policymakers to ensure that residents have active power in local agency and government decisionmaking. Partners are disrupting structural racism and creating a better future for everyone.

A woman standing outside an office with a glass wall with her arm around another woman.

Working Together

Culture of Health Prize winners, Los Angeles County, Calif., and Ramsey County, Minn., are engaging a wide range of perspectives to ensure everyone has the chance to reach their best 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.