Creating healthy communities for everyone is an ambitious, long-term pursuit centered on prevention as the most effective way to cultivate a healthy population. We know that health outcomes are affected by more than just genetics and access to care. Key factors also include health behaviors and an individual’s interaction with place, community and culture. Many elements of a healthy community (e.g., public safety and access to healthy foods, physical activity, quality education, jobs, housing, clean air and water) are increasingly well understood, but they are not always accessible in all places or to all people. For this reason, healthy communities work involves changing systems to bring healthy community elements together and make them more equitably available across social groups. The scope and complexity of this work is why it is most commonly and effectively conducted by collaborative, multidisciplinary partnerships.
Active Living By Design (ALBD) created this resource for leaders of local, healthy community partnerships. Its purpose is to serve as a “mentor in print,” providing practical, field-tested strategic guidance to help leaders be more proactive and effective. We developed accessible lessons, principles and examples from the experiences and wisdom of many healthy community partnerships and their leaders. The core lessons:
ALBD has learned about the process of healthy community change over more than a decade of work. Established in 2002 as a national program office of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), ALBD has served more than a dozen funders and 160 partnerships across the country that are fostering community-led change, primarily to build a culture of active living and healthy eating.
In 2008, ALBD launched Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC), a five-year, $33.4 million national program of RWJF whose primary goal was to implement healthy eating and active living initiatives that change both policies and environments that affect and support healthier communities for children and families across the United States. HKHC placed special emphasis on reaching children at highest risk for obesity on the basis of race, ethnicity, income and/or geographic location.
Through the program, RWJF sought to catalyze and support communities’ efforts to address the root causes of childhood obesity through integrated changes in policies, norms, practices, social supports and the physical environment. HKHC supported 49 community partnerships across the country in a wide variety of contexts. Their experiences, along with those of other partnerships ALBD has worked with, inspired the broader lessons in this guide.
We identified four areas of learning with broad application to healthy communities: 1) community capacity building, 2) communication, 3) community engagement for equity and 4) advancing policy and systems change. Each category contains core lessons and related principles that provide tips and insights into the complexity and importance of the work. All of the categories, lessons and principles are mutually reinforcing.
Brief community examples from HKHC augment each lesson to help validate and put a face on the content. These represent just a small sample of accomplishments nationwide through HKHC and other healthy community initiatives. We also highlight some useful tools and resources that can deepen learning for anyone who is interested in supporting progress toward healthier communities.
We invite you to contact us for a conversation about the content in this guide or to share your stories from the field. Thank you for joining us in this legacy-building work!