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A Model for Successful Engagement and Support through Virtual Connections

By Joanne Lee on June 23rd, 2021

Virtual platforms have become a lifeline for many during the COVID-19 pandemic to disseminate timely information and resources, and stay connected with partners. Since 2012, County Health Rankings & Roadmaps (CHR&R) has been a national leader in utilizing virtual connections to support community leaders and practitioners across the country. Their monthly webinars remain one of the organization’s highest profile services. The webinars feature respected leaders discussing a variety of community health improvement topics and reach community practitioners nationwide. Each webinar is followed by a virtual discussion group which is facilitated by Healthy Places by Design. The discussion groups promote cross-community sharing about the topic and encourage practitioners to think about how they may apply strategies presented in the webinars in their communities. Ericka Burroughs-Girardi is a Senior Outreach Specialist and lead producer for the CHR&R webinars. She shares her perspectives about virtual platforms and connections, and their value in supporting communities striving to achieve health and racial equity.


JL: How did the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps (CHR&R) webinars begin, and how have they evolved over the past eight years?

EBG: Webinars are a regular part of CHR&R’s suite of outreach to communities. We consider webinars a tool to reinforce the message that there are many factors that influence how long and how well people live. The content is designed to help audience members take steps to improve the health of their community. Early webinars focused on introducing the public to the Rankings Model and steps to improve health in CHR&R’s Action Center. They featured more downstream, or programmatic, solutions to health challenges.

Over time and as the community health improvement field evolved, we recognized a need to shift to more upstream, or policy-focused, solutions. In 2017, we began to intentionally incorporate health equity into the webinars, with a specific focus on helping community practitioners translate it into action. We also added special topic series to support communities in their efforts to address timely issues as they emerged. We began co-producing webinars with other national organizations, such as NeighborWorks America and UnidosUS, to increase their reach and impact. Over the years, we have discovered what I like to call the “secret sauce” of our webinars – the key ingredients being teamwork, relatability, and follow-up support. To host a successful webinar, it takes a team of people, both on camera and behind-the-scenes, with clear roles.  Our webinar production team includes a lead producer, an assistant producer, an audience engagement (chat) manager, a Q&A manager, and a technologist. Additionally, we’ve adopted a tone resembling that of a podcast so audiences feel like they are part of an intimate conversation with webinar presenters. We encourage the audience to engage with us, using chat prompts and live polling. Since our objective is to help community practitioners learn about and apply community health improvement strategies, we follow up with the audience. They receive a customized resource guide that includes links to tools and strategies.


Our organizations (CHR&R and Healthy Places by Design) have an eight-year partnership, and it has been mutually beneficial for Healthy Places by Design to lead the planning and facilitation of the discussion groups that follow each CHR&R webinar. Describe the discussion groups and how they fit into the strategy to support communities.

I couldn’t agree more that our partnership has been mutually beneficial! Our organizations share the same vision to advance community-led action and proven, place-based strategies to ensure health and wellbeing for all, and our capacities are complementary.

As the CHR&R webinar content became more equity-centered, audience questions revealed their need to “unpack” the content. We knew we had to offer a deeper learning experience than a 60- minute webinar if we wanted participants to feel confident taking steps to create equitable health solutions. Through our partnership with Healthy Places by Design, we launched the post-webinar discussion groups in 2017.  Feedback from participants showed them to be successful in helping attendees process what they heard and talk with others about challenging and complex issues. We have seen how the smaller virtual meeting format enables discussion group participants to be more actively and intimately engaged, sharing local solutions and presenting challenges to resolve with peers. Healthy Places by Design’s expert facilitation of these groups creates a safe learning environment where participants feel comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities. This often bolsters learning. There is authenticity, laughter, and even tears shed when the dialogue gets real and raw. It’s been rewarding to see discussion group participants self-organize by sharing contact information and tools they have developed. The discussion groups have emerged as a key ingredient in the success of CHR&R’s community outreach and support.

"...because growth never happens in a space of comfort. Expect the CHR&R webinars and discussion groups to challenge status quo thinking and solutions."


As you reflect on the evolution of the CHR&R webinars, what are you most proud of?

Personally, I am most proud of the Health Equity and Social Solidarity in the Time of the Pandemic: Strategies for COVID-19 Response and Recovery webinar series (May-August 2020). It focused on inequities magnified by the pandemic and highlighted equitable recovery strategies. While it featured veteran equity champions, such as Dr. Camara Jones, it primarily highlighted unsung heroes deeply committed to equity. And this year, the Declaring Racism as a Public Health Crisis webinar (May 2021) drew 1,000 participants for the first time in the program’s history! That confirmed we are responding to our audience’s learning needs. I credit the increase in attendance to our organization’s willingness to be courageous in addressing topics that are timely and aligned with the root causes of health inequities, such as structural racism.

The webinars are one of our best outreach tools in our efforts to support communities. I am excited that average webinar attendance has grown from 150 participants in 2014 to over 500 in 2020. And discussion group attendance has grown, too, cresting over 100 in recent months!


And what key lessons have you learned as the webinars and discussion groups have grown over time?

I have learned that communities are incredibly resilient. Creating equitable communities is a collective effort, one that requires all of us to be committed to its achievement. We must support each other by sharing of resources, tools, and even words of encouragement. We must be inclusive and share power with those who are most impacted by health inequities. These values have weaved their way into the CHR&R webinar production process. We recognize that communities own their stories. We are simply sharing our national platform for their experiences to be heard. In this way, we are choosing inclusivity and to share our power.


What can we look forward to as you build upon the past successes of the CHR&R webinars and discussion groups?

I am excited to say that you can look forward to more CHR&R webinars and discussion groups! We’ve seen that communities are ready to engage in upstream solutions, so you can expect our webinars to dig even deeper into roots of health inequities. The content may feel uncomfortable at times. When it does, I hope the audience will have faith that it is a sign of growth because growth never happens in a space of comfort. Expect the CHR&R webinars and discussion groups to challenge status quo thinking and solutions. We want community leaders, residents, practitioners, and decision makers to leave our webinars and discussion groups feeling equipped to create equitable solutions.

Joanne Lee

Collaborative Learning Director

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