Brownsville understood that one person’s health was linked to that of another and how working together to improve the entire community—to treat the “whole body”—was the best way to create sustainable health solutions.
There were several catalysts that propelled Brownsville down its current journey to a Culture of Health, including The University of Texas School of Public Health, which came to the city in 2001 and worked hard to become a true community partner — overcoming a history of mistrust of academic institutions that “swooped in” to conduct research without sharing results or collaborating on next steps. The School began by sharing local health data with residents in neighborhood meetings, which sparked a desire to do something to turn the dire rates of obesity and overweight around.
Together with now more than 200 organizations, residents and individuals from health care, education, business and community groups, the School formed the Community Advisory Board (CAB) to examine the data on the community’s health risks, and work collaboratively with partners to find solutions that will drive better health. The CAB’s members “carry the message of wellness into their homes and businesses, and they’re able to affect policy and environmental changes by voting and leadership—and that’s how we have been able to include the community, by engaging them every single step of the way,” said Belinda Reininger, DrPh, Associate Professor at The University of Texas School of Public Health.
About the same time, the city and other large employers in the area embarked on a long-range plan called Imagine Brownsville. The strategy was a business-driven look at the city’s future that evaluated the environment, health, education and other factors to assess the community’s needs. Together with the Community Advisory Board, Imagine Brownsville developed a set of shared measurable goals in areas such as fostering active transportation and healthy eating, with a community champion for each.
“We knew that health did not belong in a silo,” Gowen said. “We knew that there were economic factors and educational factors, so we learned very quickly how to speak different languages. We learned how to talk about health in terms of the economy, how to talk about it in terms of the environment and where to find those common areas where all of those factors intersected.”
The result? The diverse set of partners now share instead of compete for resources, have worked together to pass bold new health-promoting policies such as an ordinance for new businesses to install sidewalks; and an increase in parking meter fees to generate income to support bike safety and downtown revitalization, and have been tapped as a model for creative, low-cost, solutions that capitalize on existing assets to create a vibrant, healthy community.