Building Community Power to Advance Health Equity

How do local community power-building organizations advance health and racial equity?

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A man holds a clipboard while a woman signs a petition.

Gustavo Castilho, a member of Teens in Everett Against Substance Abuse, surveys one of the guests at the One Everett block party. Learn more about Everett, Mass., a 2015 Culture of Health Prize-winning community.

Community power is the ability of communities most impacted by inequity to act together to voice their needs and hopes for the future and to collectively drive structural change, hold decision-makers accountable, and advance health equity.

For more than 20 years, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has supported community power organizations and advocacy networks that engage in grassroots organizing, particularly with people who are low-income, of color, and/or youths. The Foundation has supported communities in their power-building efforts to mitigate tobacco use and childhood obesity and, most recently, to improve community conditions and confront structural racism.

Elevating Community Power and Community Voice

As the pandemic and recent uprisings against racial injustice have laid bare, structural barriers and systemic racism remain persistent obstacles to achieving health equity. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are leading vital movements that are galvanizing their communities and seeding transformative change. Building power within communities is essential to the health and well-being of people that have endured decades of racial injustice, economic exclusion, social marginalization, and health inequities. 

Low-income people and communities of color have been excluded from decision-making on the policies and practices that impact their health and prosperity, through generations of systemic exclusion and disinvestment. Our learning has shown that the people most directly affected by systemic barriers and inequities are best positioned to identify the solutions and actions needed to drive change. 

That’s why community power is important to how RWJF contributes to transformative change, in a variety of areas—from housing, to healthcare, to birthing, to family caregiving. The evaluation of this work, which will center on the principles of equitable evaluation, should begin to shed light on the impact we can have in community power-building and support our learning efforts to hone our strategies.

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The inequalities laid bare by COVID-19 simply flow from the existing pandemic of racism and racial violence we are witnessing today.

RWJF President and CEO Richard Besser

Protestors march along a road in St. Louis County.

Protestors marching down Lucas-Hunt Rd. in Northern St. Louis County during the 2016 Walk for Justice. People came from throughout the county to participate in the walk, which was held in memory of Michael Brown, Jr. two years after his death.


Editor's Pick

To end America's maternal mortality crisis, dismantle the racism that fuels it

March of Dimes President and CEO Stacey Stewart and RWJF President and CEO Richard Besser write that we must dismantle structural racism and address health inequities to ensure that all pregnant people—regardless of skin color, income, or zip code—can have healthy pregnancies, healthy babies and the ability to thrive. That's birth justice. By prioritizing critical federal and state policy changes and centering the voices and experiences of Black, Indigenous and other people of color, we can save lives and end suffering now.


Sample Grantees

Teens work on social justice campaigns.

Right to the City Alliance

A national alliance of racial, economic and environmental justice organizations working to combat the displacement of low-income people, people of color, marginalized LGBTQ communities, and youths of color from their historic urban neighborhoods.


A woman energetically advocates for a cause.


A Southern-based, national membership organization building an effective network of individuals and organizations to improve institutional policies and systems that impact the reproductive lives of marginalized communities.

A woman holds a baby at day care.

National Domestic Workers’ Alliance

The nation’s leading voice for dignity, fairness, recognition, and inclusion in labor protections for low-income domestic workers, the majority of whom are immigrants and women of color.


From the Blog

Walk With Us: Building Community Power and Connection for Health Equity

RWJF's Aditi Vaidya blogs about community power building and enabling communities to remove social and economic obstacles to health, including powerlessness.

Related Content

What is Health Equity?

This RWJF report defines health equity and identifies crucial elements to guide effective action to reduce disparities in health status.

How does community power catalyze, create, and sustain conditions for healthy communities?

To answer this question, Lead Local brought together well-respected local power-building leaders and practitioners in the fields of community organizing, advocacy, public health, and science to lift up and document how power is built in low-income communities and communities of color.

Learn more
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