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A Guiding Light through a Perfect Storm

By Joanne Lee on October 21st, 2020


The COVID-19 pandemic and intensifying social division have created a perfect storm in our country. The combination of these circumstances have highlighted health disparities and the urgent need to address them in order to truly build a nationwide culture of health. As communities have been called to manage the current public health crisis and navigate an uncertain future, they have been even hungrier for relevant and timely support and resources. This has required organizations in the field like ours to pivot in order to meet communities’ needs. The County Health Rankings and Roadmaps (CHR&R) program offers one example of how to do this kind of shift well.

CHR&R is a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute (UWPHI). For many years, the program has provided data, evidence, guidance, and examples to support community leaders working to improve health and increase health equity. Part of its suite of services includes monthly national webinars covering multiple factors that influence health in ways that are informative and actionable. Healthy Places by Design has worked in partnership with CHR&R for seven years and has facilitated its post-webinar discussion groups, which provide venues for meaningful and relevant strategy-sharing and networking among partners in communities across the nation.

Early in March, the CHR&R team recognized the likelihood of inequitable impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and stepped up its commitment to uncovering root causes of poor health and accelerating action to address them. The team saw an opportunity to leverage their large and diverse national webinar audience and launched a five-part special series, Health Equity and Social Solidarity in the Time of Pandemic: Strategies for COVID-19 Response and Recovery. While there has been a noticeable uptick in the number of webinars and online learning events offered by various organizations over the past months, what made the CHR&R series different was its explicit focus on delving deeply into the intersection of race, racism, and health. This focus has been especially necessary given how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black, Latino, and Tribal communities.

There were sessions dedicated to uncovering and examining the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black communities, Tribal Nations, and the Latino population. Webinar attendees learned from nationally-renowned thought leaders, researchers, and policymakers. In the post-webinar discussion groups, attendees also explored how the strategies and guidance they heard might be implemented in their communities. It’s notable that a multifaceted program like CHR&R was able to make shifts in response to emerging needs; it was also something that its team knew needed to be done.


Sheri Johnson, Director at UWPHI, elaborates, “Based on our analysis of longstanding inequities in opportunities to live long and well, we were acutely aware that these patterns were likely to be repeated. So, we used the resources we have to help fuel the possibilities for real change.”

The webinar series expanded CHR&R’s audience and generated deep thinking and conversations about health, equity, and social solidarity. The series reached community members from all 50 states, drew more than 2,000 attendees, and resulted in more than 1,000 new subscribers to CHR&R’s e-newsletter. A majority of the attendees learned a new strategy to address disparities that have been exacerbated by COVID-19 (78%), and felt that the post-webinar discussion group sessions helped them think about how to apply strategies in their communities (85%).

The webinar series also provided an opportunity for the CHR&R team to learn from communities across the country. CHR&R’s ongoing practice of bi-directional learning and continuous improvement includes examining solicited and unsolicited feedback via various touchpoints with community partners, and acting on that information to shape future supports and services. CHR&R will continue to focus on equity going forward.

An exciting next step will involve lifting stories of communities that have proclaimed or declared Racism as a Public Health Crisis in ways that are instructional and inspirational to others. CHR&R’s continued work and commitment to addressing the root causes of inequities reminds us that there are still opportunities amid these challenging times. Ericka Burroughs-Girardi, CHR&R Action Learning Coach, explains, “We have the chance to rewrite the narrative of what our communities can look like. Equity-focused decision-making is key for a future ripe with opportunity for every person in America, no matter the color of their skin, how much money they make, or where they live.”

Joanne Lee

Senior Project Director

Adventurous strategist, cross-cultural explorer, and human and animal welfare champion.