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Community-Owned Government: A Lost Ideal or Achievable Goal?

By Joanne Lee on April 21st, 2014

…government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” – Abraham Lincoln

I’ve often reflected on the ideals in this famous quote by Abraham Lincoln and pondered on its relevance to our collective work in creating healthy communities. More specifically, I’ve wondered about the role of local government in building a culture of community health. At one extreme, government may be positioned or perceived as a provider of necessary services, controller of community resources and regulator of restrictive policies. Toward the other end of the continuum is an approach that acknowledges citizens and community members as leaders and partners who not only inform decisions and policies, but also play an active role in implementing and sustaining them. Is this an achievable goal within the context of healthy communities or a historic ideal?

Since our inception over a decade ago, Active Living By Design (ALBD) has watched the Healthy Cities movement evolve and spread as a model for supporting broad and holistic community health through partnerships between public and private sectors. I recall reading an article in the November 1998 issue of Public Management magazine in which Douglas K. Clark clearly outlined the “Traditional vs. Healthy City continuum” of key public-private characteristics that must change in order for the Healthy Cities model to be successful.

Through our direct work with community partnerships across the country, we have seen various partnership models. Some led by public or government sector agencies and others led by private or community-based organizations. We know that the success of a partnership is dependent upon community context. We are also seeing the emergence of key factors that can best position government to be as effective as possible in supporting community health. Healthy RC is a shining example of a partnership that has achieved and sustained the key public-private characteristics of the Healthy Cities model.

Healthy RC was launched by the Rancho Cucamonga, California City Council in 2008 as a city-community partnership to create “healthy minds, healthy bodies, and a clean, sustainable earth.” Over the past six years, the partnership has received numerous local, state and national recognitions for its approach and model to create a healthy city. The success of Healthy RC stems from the authentic partnership between government and citizens/community members. City officials and leaders view themselves as conveners and stewards, and citizens view themselves as partners and change agents. In their approach, community members identify important issues and determine how to address them, and the city responds by providing resources and support accordingly. Achieving this type of partnership has been the result of intentional relationship-building efforts and strategies, including capacity building training and resources for adults and youth (Campeones para la Comunidad), and opportunities for ongoing engagement and dialogue through council workshops and neighborhood meetings.

What’s been particularly exciting for me is to have been able to witness the authentic relationships between city leaders/staff and community members. During multiple site visits and meetings, I saw how residents felt comfortable enough to sit at the same table with their elected officials and city staff members, and easily conversed about family and life. This high level of engagement and partnership continued during the development of The Road Map for a Healthy Future in Rancho Cucamonga. The partnership counted hundreds of community members who dedicated thousands of hours to the planning process, sharing ideas and priorities, analyzing and interpreting data, and producing the document. Over 200 community residents attended a forum in October to establish the priorities and strategic directions to inform The Road Map document. It was adopted by unanimous vote of the City Council last month and will serve as Healthy RC’s strategic plan moving forward with outlined roles for city and community members to fill through implementation and sustainability of the plan.

Healthy RC has consistently demonstrated that government and community can truly work collaboratively in authentic partnership, above veils of token memberships or representations and beyond didactic or one-way communication venues. They have reaffirmed my belief that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is an achievable goal. Congratulations, Healthy RC, for your successful and sustained efforts to support a healthy city!

What thoughts or models can you share about community-owned government and building a culture of health? Share your ideas on our Facebook page.

Joanne Lee

Senior Project Director

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