Communities: Baldwin Park, CA, Central Valley, CA, Chattanooga, TN, Columbia, MO
Many HKHC grantees are working with communities to enact policy and environmental changes. Successful top-down change initiatives require having a strong level of community engagement influencing the decisions from the ground-up. Community engagement refers to the process by which organizations and individuals build ongoing relationships with the purpose of moving the community towards a collective vision. This is done by actively implementing a specific process towards some change that would be beneficial for the community. The process entails determining a plan and its specific goals and objectives; determining who to engage and developing strategies to do so; prioritizing activities and creating an implementation plan; monitoring the progress; and maintaining relationships. While organizations or coalitions often lead the way in implementing change for a community, many organizations will include members of the community in the planning and implementation of projects in order to ensure that the community has input and is thus engaged in a meaningful way.
Mobilizing communities the grassroots level is integral to sustained momentum for change at both the community- and policy-levels. Developing local leaders can lead to healthier communities, creating a legacy for future generations of knowledge and tools to improve their community.
Baldwin Park, California: Residents Lead Local Planning Recommendations
Meaningful community engagement is at the heart of Baldwin Park’s Healthy Kids Healthy Communities (HKHC) program strategy. The California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA) has developed a nationally-recognized leadership development model for ensuring that local residents are at the core of all HKHC processes of their work.
Through HKHC, residents have participated in local health research, gathered local data on food and built environments, led community forums and testified to city council in support of policies that make the healthy choice the easy choice. Over the last three years, the partnership has involved more than 300 residents in their HKHC efforts. The process has engaged youth and Spanish-speaking residents who are traditionally underrepresented in civic engagement and city planning processes.
Furthermore, the staff at CCPHA and the resident leaders have built a strong alliance with local elected officials and commissioners to ensure that local decisions reflect an authentic community input process. For example, before the Planning Department made recommendations to the city council to adopt a Complete Streets policy, resident leaders led a multi-day interactive and collaborative series of public workshops, walkability audits, and design sessions with local residents. These efforts culminated in the creation of resident-based plans. They presented these plans to key decision-makers, including the Mayor, Planning Department, and Chief of Police.
Baldwin Park’s model of community engagement is part of an organic, long-term process. As a result, their work has encouraged resident leaders to become the agents of change in Baldwin Park. Such efforts have led to deeper community engagement and resident expertise, positive relationships with decision makers, and a path toward sustainable resident leadership in the community.
Central Valley, California: Building Local Leaders to be Agents of Change
The San Joaquin Valley covers eight counties and approximately 500 square miles in California. Communities in this region share similar challenges of high rates of obesity, poverty, low education, and inadequate access to nutritious food and safe venues for physical activity. Furthermore, many towns in this area are unincorporated and people often lack a representative municipal government. Due to the rich agricultural land of this area, many residents in the region are employed or are connected to farm labor. Many farm laborers are undocumented and are paid very poorly. This vulnerability can make speaking up risky for fear of drawing attention to themselves.
HKHC Central Valley, California, developed a community leadership curriculum that has been used to train over 100 residents in order to not only advocate for change in their communities, but to rise to leadership positions. The curriculum includes experiential and engaging training in community organizing, public speaking, media advocacy, research, policymaking processes, and conflict resolution.
Outcomes of the program for participants include understanding of complex socioeconomic and community health issues that cause health disparities; understanding of land-use policies and their effects on the health of communities; knowledge of healthy eating and active living; networking and development of relationships among emerging leaders; enrichment of inquiry and analytical skills; and learning tools for evaluating advocacy efforts.
The goal is for residents to not only be effective advocates for change in their communities, but to be equipped to take leadership positions and become decision-makers. Graduates of the leadership program are now involved with making real changes in their community. Some examples of work include:
Graduates have also risen to leadership positions in their careers. One leader was hired by a non-profit in Stockton to assist with HKHC Safe Routes to School goals. She is also on her public housing complex’s resident council. One has joined the San Joaquin County United Way as a program evaluator and a reviewer of grant proposals. And another has joined the San Joaquin County Head Start board of directors.
Many graduates are helping to evaluate and update the leadership development curriculum in order to contribute to the next cohort of rising leaders trained by the HKHC partnership.
Chattanooga, Tennessee: Equal Partners in Community Planning
Community-driven planning is pivotal to HKHC Chattanooga’s mission of achieving safe and healthy neighborhoods. The community engagement process began with walkability and bikeability assessments in the East and South neighborhoods of Chattanooga. The HKHC partnership recruited people from these neighborhoods who were already engaged in the community. They formed a Leadership Advisory Council, composed of members from the East Chattanooga Leadership Advisory Committee and the South Chattanooga Leadership Advisory Committee. These community members were actively involved in the assessments. The HKHC partners provided resources, such as local experts and planners who had discussions with residents in order to build mutual awareness on these issues and to build mutual trust.
The HKHC partnership is aware of the communities’ distrust of outsiders who come into East and South Chattnooga making lofty promises without involving the community. “A lot of times nonprofits and grants come into the community and leave without the community seeing them,” says John Bilderback, the Step ONE program manager of Grow Healthy Together Chattanooga. “Our budget is open to [the community],” says Bilderback, because community members are equal collaborators on the project.
From the walkability and bikeabilty assessments, the community members prioritized issues and set realistic goals, aided by the HKHC partners. This end product is the Grow Healthy Together Chattanooga Community Action Guide, a living document that provides the community work plan in an easy to read and understand format. It contains evidence-based goals and policy recommendations for the city of Chattanooga. The HKHC team offers revisions and advice to the residents, but ultimately they let the communities lead. According to Bilderback, “The Plain Speak guide is literally their goals and their plan at that time. And it’s a living document, and they can change what they need to.”
In the past, there had been animosity between the community and planners. The communities felt as though their concerns were not being taken seriously. But now things are changing: “At this point,” says Bilderback, “they are in charge. We literally turned control of the initiative to these two communities. We serve as advisors to them.”
Bilderback’s final advice on improving the health of communities: “If you’re trying to get it done without asking the people you’re trying to help, that’s the biggest mistake.”
Columbia, Missouri: Investing in Community Members for Long-Term Change
The goal of HKHC Columbia, MO, is to support the grassroots efforts of local community organizations in underserved areas of Columbia to engage in policy advocacy efforts for healthier neighborhoods. According to Sam Robinson, Director of Healthy Community Initiatives at PedNet Coalition, the HKHC partnership follows a “community participatory model,” which involves engaging community members and agencies at every facet of project, including leadership.
However, in the beginning of the project, PedNet Coalition thought they had support from the community. But when Robinson and Ian Thomas, Executive Director of PedNet, were guests on a local radio show to discuss the HKHC project, the radio host (who is also a local community leader) voiced his displeasure towards PedNet’s assertion that it knew what was best for the African American community. While Robinson felt they had been inclusive of the community, local residents felt that PedNet was trying to speak for them without knowing what they really needed.
The partnership analyzed its strategy and realized they had been trying to approach local issues in a top-down rather than in a grassroots approach. They had wanted to look at policies first, and this wasn’t resonating with the residents, who felt that existing community organizations needed more programmatic support. Robinson continued to engage community members, leaders and stakeholders, and attended community events and functions in order to demonstrate that PedNet was invested long term in the daily issues of the community. The partnership also brought in a community engagement coordinator, Verna Laboy, a long-time civic activist with expertise and genuine relationships with the community. They recruited local people to assist with strategy and crafting messages. This has helped them reach out to other community activists who have been able to work together, “and now they’ve been contacting us,” says Robinson.
In response to the needs of local community organizations, PedNet Coalition created the Healthy Community Coalition, and offered mini-grants to eight organizations working on specific projects, such as community assessments. “This was a turning point,” says Robinson, “We were saying to the community partners, ‘We support you. We want to provide resources to help you do what you do best – to serve the community.’ It showed we were really invested in the community, in particular the First Ward.” This neighborhood has the largest enclave of African-American residents in the city, and they have an adversarial relationship with the city government. Robinson feels the HKHC partnership, by listening and responding to residents, has built credibility in the neighborhood. “I’m trusted to serve them,” he says, “And we’re having great successes and results. We’re serving the needs of the community while creating political, social and environmental change.”
The skepticism has stopped, says Robinson, and their always includes a portion of the community members at all their meetings. “People see their neighbors leading efforts rather than just politicians and bureaucrats who speak without resonating in their daily lives.” His advice for other organizations trying to engage a community: “The first thing you should do is just listen. You’ll ultimately achieve your goals by listening to what the communities want.”
Engaging community members to be involved in a meaningful way is important for community projects to be successful and sustained. Many HKHC projects invite community members in the beginning stages of the initiative in order for them to have a say in their strategies through priority-setting and vocalizing their needs. It is necessary to engage organizations as well as individuals, in order to share resources, skills, and insight. In many places, community coalitions already exist and have an active network, and in other places the HKHC projects created opportunities for this to happen. Engaging youth, as well as adults, provides new perspectives and a different voice on local issues. The relationship between organizations and community members can be even more meaningful when community members are able to learn new skills and build their capacity to move their community towards its collective vision.
Other HKHC sites working on community engagement: