Leveraging Community Expertise to Advance Health Equity: Principles and Strategies for  Community Engagement

Residents of a community discuss current events.

Interviews with stakeholders and experts find that authentic and sustainable community engagement is integral to advancing health equity and eradicating barriers to community well-being.

The Issue

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic's disproportionate effects on communities of color, health equity initiatives are being implemented across the United States. However, there is little consensus on best practices for such initiatives and the role of community engagement (i.e., sharing power with community members to identify barriers to good health and enact solutions).

Key Findings

Though interviewees varied in how they define and implement community engagement and identified different barriers to effective community engagement, they offered several considerations for states and organizations to build trust with disenfranchised communities and to more effectively engage them in advancing health equity.

  • Interviewees expressed the importance of states, community-based organizations, and community members developing a shared definition for "equity." Many suggested a broad definition of "health equity" that includes addressing social determinants of health, such as safe housing, adequate nutrition, and financial stability.  

  • Taking a local focus (rather than statewide) is key to effectively engaging the community to advance health equity. Participants encouraged tailored strategies to helping communities, given that each has different demographic compositions, challenges, and strengths.

  • Interviewees noted that diverse perspectives are integral to meaningful community engagement. Community members are often experts in the challenges their communities face and can offer valuable insight for solutions.

  • Many study participants cited that a lack of institutional commitment, limited funding, and bureaucratic barriers often hinder effective community engagement.


Community engagement is a valuable tool for successful health equity initiatives. While community engagement comes in many forms, the stakeholders and experts interviewed stipulate the importance of developing trust, adequate funding, dedicated time and effort, and a commitment to fighting structural racism. 

About the Urban Institute

The nonprofit Urban Institute is dedicated to elevating the debate on social and economic policy. For nearly five decades, Urban scholars have conducted research and offered evidence-based solutions that improve lives and strengthen communities across a rapidly urbanizing world. Their objective research helps expand opportunities for all, reduce hardship among the most vulnerable, and strengthen the effectiveness of the public sector. Visit the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center for more information specific to its staff and its recent research.