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Culture Change Happens Up Close

By on March 29, 2017



I spend a lot of my time trying to convince foundations and coalitions that authentic community engagement is the best way to work toward health equity. I mean the kind of community engagement that includes residents who are facing an issue in the decision making about how to address that issue. The kind that recognizes privilege and oppression as two sides of the same coin. The kind that develops new leaders and shifts power. The kind that’s patient and open to conflict. The kind in which “professionals” and consultants stop blocking the light and make room for others to shine.

At conferences, I normally make a pragmatic pitch to an audience that is paid to work on complex community health issues. I focus on the benefits of resident engagement for improved assessment, stronger trust, better credibility with funders, distributed knowledge and leadership, mobilized social networks, a stronger constituency for policy change, better use of new facilities, etc. These are persuasive points that are usually strong enough to encourage people to step into what’s uncomfortable.

But for me, I see even more validation of community engagement’s worth in what happens to and between people I’ve come to know along the way.

It shows up when:

  • A neighborhood watch president starts walking the neighborhood and mowing her lawn for the first time in many years despite physical challenges.
  • A white colleague gently reminds her co-worker about his privilege during a debriefing at the airport.
  • A few young Latinas stand up for the first time to tell an elder gatekeeper what’s most important to their babies’ health.
  • A reticent, dispirited older resident starts beaming with confidence and vitality, sharing her opinion and soliciting others’ opinions at a meeting of the neighborhood association she just founded.
  • Sidelined organizational administrators grow from skeptical to bewildered and astonished to, finally, impressed with a resident-led planning process that they had initially expected to run.
  • A formerly homeless grandmother presents to a corporate foundation and celebrates getting her first grant.
  • A fiery public housing resident brings new active listening skills to a conflict over a pending local decision.

These are the faces of culture change, the visages of hope—and the true harbingers of sustained success.

Significant, lasting social change depends less on knowledge, policies, and plans than on new ways of seeing and treating each other. The population health and health equity fields are lucky to have their visionaries and thought leaders. But without roots in an intimate culture of community engagement—of mutual love, respect, and encouragement between and among community members and change makers—their dreams and designs are, well, just that.

Rich Bell

Rich Bell |

Senior Project Officer

Student of systems change and advocate of the small, slow and connected.

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