In 2015, East Harlem, NY, was one of six communities chosen to be part of the New York State Health Foundation’s (NYSHealth) Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative (HNI). The East Harlem initiative was co-led by the Bureau of Harlem Neighborhood Health for the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) with nonprofit affiliate, Fund for Public Health, serving as fiscal agent. The Bureau’s work, coordinated by Arlen Zamula and Caitlin Falvey, mobilized community residents and nonprofit organizations to activate public spaces and improve conditions for walking and bicycling in East Harlem. The initiative also built capacity among neighborhood groups as catalysts for community health and created free tools for neighborhood organizers that were informed by the HNI. In Spring 2020, the team was abruptly redeployed to assist the health department’s COVID-19 response. Healthy Places by Design talked to Arlen and Caitlin about the HNI in East Harlem. Here are highlights from our conversation.
CF: I came in about a third of the way into the initiative as the program coordinator. Arlen served as program manager providing oversight.
AZ: I learned about budgeting and operations both with the Foundation and in my own organization. I was unfamiliar with foundation grant management. The HNI was my first real foundation grant and it was helpful. I also really appreciated the Foundation’s flexibility toward the end of the grant when the pandemic hit. Government tends to be pretty rigid, so it was good to see grantee organizations given that flexibility. It was a partnership, not just me entering information into a database.
CF: This opportunity gave us the flexibility to challenge what it means to be in government. It allowed me to try new things and approaches. I even developed new communications channels and that improved how I work with people.
AZ: COVID—it hurt us in every aspect. Two team members had to be pulled off the HNI work to respond to the crisis. We had to figure a way to “MacGyver” our work with partners who were also suffering. It was very tough. It’s still tough. Whenever I’m asked about challenges, COVID will always be my answer.
CF: COVID turned out as an extreme example of trying to balance the needs of the community, the funder, and our own group, a governmental organization. We also had to adjust to new organizational changes when DOHMH restructured and rebranded itself. Maintaining relationships can also be challenging, so it was helpful that the Foundation extended funding in the latter years.
CF: We were able to overcome challenges of COVID, while developing so many relationships. Previously, I worked in academia where we did not have solid relationships with community partners. I’m proud of how we built trust in those relationships. For example, the biking coalition, El Barrio Bikes, would never have built a relationship with the health department without this grant. I am still in contact with the folks from the coalition and members of our Health Action Panel.
AZ: I’m proud of the relationships and trust that we built. People know they can ask us when they need help. We’re also proud of tangible things. We published papers, for example. We worked with TYTHEdesign on the Community Engagement Almanac website and Health Action Tool Kit. Together, we produced some really good work that shows other community groups, step-by-step, how to create healthier environments.
AZ: We built capacity in the community organizations we worked with directly. They blossomed into organizations that are now leaders in the work we were doing. For example, one person we trained as a ride leader now heads a local bike organization.
The Health in Action Panelists are more motivated to get involved with the health department. There’s a newly developed neighborhood panel and two panelists from our Health in Action panel have applied.
Also they can see that investment in the process produces good outcomes. The Health in Action grants proved to be low risk and high reward and that encouraged people to take on projects they wouldn’t ordinarily do.
CF: We have several examples of capacity-building that are based on trust. During our pandemic response, DOHMH set up communications channels to get health information out into neighborhoods. We saw community organizations in East Harlem getting the word out about COVID because of our work with them on physical activity access and capacity-building.
The health department also benefited from the HNI. We were able to get money out quickly to local partners. And the organizations we funded with mini-grants benefited from skill-building sessions and access to financial resources. For example, the Health in Action grantees sat down with the TYTHEdesign team to develop evaluation plans with minimal resources. That capacity-building focus transferred power and skills from us to the community organizations which helped with finding grants, especially. They felt empowered to do that on their own.
CF: Funders should allow grantees to focus on relationships that will carry through and adapt to that change. We had fun with the biking, walking, and crime prevention work we did, but we shouldn’t be wedded to any particular focus areas that could change.
AZ: Always have a Plan B and be ready to change on a dime.
AZ: Funders in general have wonderful goals, they want to solve problems. But we have to be realistic about the problems we want to solve through investments and how long they will last. Funders need to make sure money and time are adequate to accomplish everything you want to achieve.
It was lovely getting little notes from the Foundation team in the thick of the pandemic. We had a very human relationship and it provided a certain measure of calm that was quite welcome as we had grant deadlines during the peak of the madness. Everybody the funder brought in to help with the grant was just a pleasure to work with. They looked at us as people, not just a grantee. Any other funder could have just said, “You still have to get it all done.”
CF: Everything NYSHealth did in the last few years was good. They started by listening and hearing us. It felt like they were coming up with solutions. They were still guiding what we did, but in the last few years, the Foundation let us make decisions about our initiatives.