My primary audience for this post is my husband (17 years next month!) because he unfortunately has to answer this question for others all the time, “what does your wife do, again?”. He’s actually not convinced I work at all because I just hang out with people I really enjoy, learn about their hopes, dreams & challenges, help them tell stories about their community’s goals, go on a bunch of walking tours, learn, learn, learn, present ideas to policy makers, host a community dance party or two, present about it at some conference, write a few grants, then take a nap. It’s all pretty messy, super fun, and keeps the lights on around here.
So honey, as I start up another project in Broward County, FL with amazing colleagues at the Urban Health Solutions/Urban Health Partnership, Broward Regional Health Planning Council, Healthy Community Zone project thought I’d write about why someone hires me and what we’re trying to accomplish together.
I work with leaders to build healthy communities through policy, system, and environmental change. (the previous sentence is an example of “grant vomit”). I like to explain environment as a fast running river. If you jump into the fast running river you can swim against the current and go upstream. It will be difficult and you will have to be committed and have the skills and strength to persevere. It’s not impossible, but very tough.
Most people won’t swim against the river, or they will for only a short time. This is the experience of an individual living in a community. If their community supports health it may have safe places to walk or bike to errands, work, and school. It may have anti-tobacco policies in place. It may have access to affordable healthy foods and provide healthy meals at schools. It may have limited advertising for unhealthy products. Individuals can still choose sedentary behavior, unhealthy foods, tobacco usage, and other negative health behaviors, but they will be less convenient than the healthy choice.
Changing the direction of that fast moving river to support healthy behaviors is what policy, system, and environmental change is all about. We say, our goal is to make the healthy choice the easy and affordable choice. Notice, it’s not about taking away choices. It’s changing the current so that as we go with the flow we are moving towards healthier behaviors and communities. It’s what the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation calls building a Culture of Health.
I don’t make this stuff up. Take a look at Citizen-Centered Health Promotion: Building Collaborations to Facilitate Healthy Living published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine and available on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation website. Citizen-centered means looking at how an individual’s choices are impacted by all of the environments she/he interacts with. Our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, and larger communities all impact what choices individuals have. People exist in environments. Communities across the country are recognizing that they have to build a network of these environments to support individual health.
That’s what I do, help people build that network. Here’s my job description below, found on page S44 of the article:
“ A third party is often necessary to convene potential partners, solve logistic challenges, and pool resources to facilitate collaboration. For the majority of success stories involving effective community partnerships, third parties supported by philanthropies or public funding—a community organization or research institution—were key to “connecting the dots.” To make such collaborations scalable and sustainable over time in ordinary settings, where grant support and research investigators are lacking, an infrastructure for third-party support must be available to help communities undertake citizen-centered redesign. Each community must have access to an entity for on-the-ground assistance in building partnerships and designing solutions to help citizens sustain healthy behaviors.”
I build the coalition and help the coalition build the plan. I basically do three things for communities in this role:
Translation–I am a generalist and I know enough about most sectors that impact the individual to translate among different groups (schools, transportation, housing, business/private sector, higher education, community based organizations, food systems, public health, etc.) In the article above it’s called “connecting the dots“.
Boil-Down–I believe in using simple language and strive for clarity. I muddle through “grant-vomit”, business jargon, academic yammering and all other forms of scrambled communication. I refuse to use the word “stakeholders” (which is just a personal preference, I’m sure you’ve got your pet peeves in this category as well.) Communities just want to be happier and healthier. It’s complicated but requires simplicity.
Draw the Picture–Everything is about painting the picture. We need to see it, experience it, touch it, taste it, smell it, and process it. Yes, we need the 20 (or 200!) page document that backs up our work, but we need a picture of where we’re going and what it will look like. That comes from pulling people together, learning, and drawing the picture…and that is what I do.