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Three Ways to Become a Covert Health Champion

By Phil Bors on April 28th, 2014

The intersection of Conkey Ave. and Clifford Ave., in Rochester, NY, has long held a reputation as an open-air drug market. It was not unusual to see drug dealers on all four corners selling to buyers coming from throughout the region. The neighborhood’s bold response? Build a playground and greenway on that spot and activate it for children and families.

In 2010, Ibero-American Development Corporation (IADC) asked Miguel Melendez to help lead the charge with a group of partner organizations, the City of Rochester and residents to “take back” one corner of the intersection by creating a pocket park and playground. Miguel has been quietly taking bold actions to change the neighborhood where he grew up and has always lived. He was responsible for making the “community build” a success for families and children by organizing their input and participation in the heart of what is known as the “Project HOPE” neighborhood. In fact, enthusiasm was so high – more than 100 residents and partners pitched in – that Miguel and his team were challenged to find a role for everyone who wanted to help. When the Rochester weather cooperates, children and families can now be seen playing safely at Conkey Corner Park and riding bikes along the El Camino rail-trail.

When I first met Miguel a few years ago, as project officer for Rochester’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant, I was struck by his confidence and soft-spoken wisdom, despite his youthful appearance (he is 27 years old). Whether touring the park, or strolling along the trail, I observed a respected community leader beyond his professional role as Project Coordinator for IADC. We rarely passed anyone who didn’t know and acknowledge Miguel. Yet despite the respect people have for him, Miguel’s leadership style is much more covert than forceful.

I asked Miguel to reflect back on his role as an organizer and leader following these very successful projects. While he is reluctant to call himself a leader, and readily acknowledges the contributions of other partners, he offered these critical ingredients for directing community change efforts:

  1. Listen – Perhaps because his psychology degree, Miguel credits his willingness to “listen first” as the skill that helped him become an effective leader. He told me he has grown the most by recognizing “the wisdom in the room,” whether participating in city council meetings, community events or planning meetings with neighborhood residents and youth. “I may have answers up front but residents have better ideas.”
  2. Shift control when possible – According to Miguel, “A resident with $500 to plan a block party would do it a million times better than I could. This is the power of one individual, to be able to do so much with so little.” Miguel most appreciates the opportunities to relinquish some of the power that comes in his position and “get out of the way.”
  3. Share credit – Miguel feels he contributes most by keeping partners and residents mindful of the larger vision. “A lot of groups are very collaborative but are still in their silos. And you can get so much done if you don’t worry about who gets the credit. I’ve learned so much from others.”

For years, public health and health care experts have been recognized as credible directors of healthy community initiatives. But in practice, I see people from many walks of life create positive change while bringing fresh ideas and approaches and, ideally, aligning with and contributing to health goals while also pursuing their core mission. For example, the rail-trail conversion happened due to a years-long concerted effort by Genesee Land Trust. In addition, IADC’s affordable housing work contributed to and benefited from the trail project since it coincided with their development of El Camino Estates, which added 50 new single family homes to the Project HOPE neighborhood.

How people lead is also critical in communities. Traditional, more “assertive,” leadership skills obviously have their place, such as setting a course of action, delegating and directing others. Just as important, however, are more understated skills in which health champions work behind the scenes, connect new partners, resolve conflicts and stay mindful of the big picture.

Rochester and the neighborhoods surrounding Conkey Corner Park and El Camino trail still struggle with real and perceived danger from crime and violence. Yet both projects are positive and tangible improvements that will benefit the area for years to come, thanks to leaders like Miguel Melendez.

What are your secrets of successful leadership in creating community change? Let us know.

Phil Bors

Senior Project Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time