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Are You Investing in a Community or a World Cup?

By Rich Bell on July 1st, 2014

If you want to know why a highly successful World Cup event could provoke popular street protests in futbol-obsessed Brazil, just follow the money. Low-income Brazilians, long lacking many of the most basic public services, were understandably frustrated and right to question their government’s priorities and motives when the Brazilian government spent billions of dollars of public money for stadiums, tourist infrastructure and security. Exceptional legislation, fat private contracts and forced evictions from favelas with minimal community consultation confirmed suspicions and fanned the flames of discontent.

While not as powerful as governments, many lead agencies of healthy community partnerships are also making important investment decisions. They’ve secured a big grant to advance community health and increased their staff to support a partnership. Perhaps they’ve subcontracted funds to partner organizations that they trust to get the work done. They are doing their best to please their funders, honor timelines, manage money efficiently, adhere to professional standards of evidence-based practice, and accurately report results.

What will residents think about these decisions and efforts on their behalf? How will they respond?

For an answer, follow the money. How much of the grant money supports white-collar professionals from outside and how much supports resident leadership? Are they meeting on residents’ preferred terms or the other way around? Are professional partners patient, receptive and relationship-oriented with their time, or are they rushing some external agenda? What is the direct investment in the community and its residents?

Many healthy community partnerships now make it a practice to invest in resident leadership and create ongoing capacity within the community. For example, Revision International worked with health funders to expand urban agriculture in West Denver, and paid a group of trained “promotoras” to conduct health outreach and serve as garden trainers. As bilingual, bicultural community members, these women were able to connect weekly with residents at their homes to increase their participation and involvement in urban agriculture, even as the promotoras role expanded to other projects. The backyard gardening program and urban farm projects were highly successful.

The Community Health Navigators and “Creciendo en Salud” programs in Benton County, OR are other excellent examples of investment in resident engagement. Rocio Munoz, the daughter of migrant workers, was hired as a Community Health Navigator to help communicate with Spanish speaking residents about their health needs and bridge barriers to services. Today, she coordinates the “Creciendo en Salud” (i.e. “Growing in Health”) program for the Benton County Health Department and speaks to the success of their approach with the parks and recreation department. “Now when there’s a community forum, residents feel like they own the conversation. Two years ago, we had maybe one or two attendees; now it’s 30,” Rocio said. “The parks department has seen a huge increase in utilization of their programs since we started.”

With a particularly intensive investment in resident leadership, the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program (CCROPP) prepared 175 residents across eight counties to be advocates through its “Powerful People: Building Leadership for Healthy Communities” training program. Trainings are culturally, linguistically and literacy-level appropriate and held in local community facilities with needed supports like childcare.

Graduates have joined community boards and advisory committees and led successful campaigns in multiple communities and settings. They won new and improved sidewalks and crosswalks, supporting children’s walk to and from school. They secured agreements between schools and cities to share facilities, supporting children’s play. They helped establish school-based farm stands, improving families’ access to healthy foods. These successes have been profound at a personal level for participants as well as at the community level. “We created a process where residents identify what they want to work on, and we help support their priorities,” said CCROPP’s Regional Program Director Veva Islas.

Resident leaders can be drivers of healthy, equitable change. They can effectively communicate with people from their own community and relate to their most pressing concerns. They know how things work and how to advance the work outside professional working hours and meetings. They understand that success earned and stories told within the community mean more to a culture of health than the successes and stories of outsiders.

Are you investing in the ongoing success of the community? Or might you be hosting your own “world cup”? How might you adjust your efforts to leave a more equitable legacy?

Rich Bell

Senior Project Officer

Student of systems change and advocate of the small, slow and connected.