Our Blog

Aetna Foundation Grantees Use Virtual Connections for Self-Sustained Learning

By Daijah Street Davis on August 29th, 2019

Over the last year and a half, Healthy Places by Design has supported the Aetna Foundation’s Cultivating Healthy Communities (CHC) grant program by co-creating and coordinating a peer learning network that connects nearly 50 place-based partnerships in 18 states.


Through this initiative, our team sets a “virtual table” where advocates for health and equity exchange ideas, solve problems, share best practices, and support each other’s work. Although our team has expertise to share, one of our priorities for this project has been to encourage grantees’ leadership and lift their expertise. Not only do they learn from others who face similar challenges, but the organic connections that they develop are also vital to sustaining peer support beyond the CHC network.

Sparking these connections often begins with a grantee team stepping up to present their work during “Affinity Sessions.” Healthy Places by Design hosts and facilitates these video sessions, during which grantees virtually convene with others who are completing projects on similar topics (like active spaces, youth engagement, healthy eating, and preventing environmental exposures) to learn more about each other’s work and ask about specific challenges they experience.

As a compliment to the Affinity Sessions, we also coordinate webinars that build knowledge and skills by bringing in speakers who provide expertise and a fresh perspective. Webinar topics have included storytelling, program sustainability, social media strategy, the impact of institutionalized racism on health, and how to work with government to advance racial equity. We have also created the space needed to work around power dynamics and prompt honest conversations with grantees.


CHC Grantee Highlight

During one of the Affinity Sessions in late 2018, staff from the YWCA of New Britain, CT volunteered to speak about their experience with Photovoice, a participatory research method in which young people represent their perspectives through photography. Healthy Places by Design provided the virtual platform and invited grantees to join the conversation. The YWCA team took it from there, sharing specific insights and resources on how Photovoice could be used as an evaluation technique.

The YWCA’s compelling Photovoice story sparked the interest of other grantees, who wanted to take a deeper dive on the topic. The peer organizations did the heavy lifting by setting a date and time for their discussion, inviting others who were interested in Photovoice, and developing an agenda. Their initiative not only led to deeper learning, but also to the exchange of resources. This instance of self-sustained networking was possible because the YWCA team stepped up to share their expertise.

Collaborative connections—virtual and in person—offer opportunities to learn new skills, develop supportive relationships, access resources, and sometimes simply remind you that your work is meaningful and part of something bigger.

We hope to continue to see these type of connections expand, both in this project and in your work. People doing the work every day provide a unique perspective and level of credibility that just can’t be conveyed by technical assistance providers, expert speakers, or even funders. Is there an organization whose work has sparked your interest? What about a community coalition meeting you’ve been thinking about attending? Consider this encouragement to get out and connect with others.


You can learn more about the Cultivating Healthy Communities initiative here.

Daijah Street Davis

Project Manager

Joyful educator and learner advocating for system-level change.