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Culture Catalyzes Sustainability

By Joanne Lee on September 17th, 2014

If you build a culture of health, you’re more likely to sustain a healthy community. This was underscored last week when I traveled to Louisiana to facilitate a sustainability workshop for grantees and partners of the Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana Grant Program. The initiative is the first of its kind in the state, and the largest investment in healthy community funding ever made by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation. Having served as a reviewer for these grants in 2012, I appreciated the opportunity to see and hear about the progress and accomplishments of the 12 partnerships who are entering the third and final year of their projects.

During the workshop, grantees learned about and practiced using Active Living By Design’s framework for sustaining healthy communities which includes four key components or “streams:” social (partnership and leadership), environmental, policy/systems and economic. Our approach involves strategic and proactive planning under each of these streams to support long-term sustainability. To initiate discussions about sustaining healthy communities, I asked, “What are you trying to sustain?” When posed with this question, most community partnerships are readily able to articulate the healthy eating and physical activity components of their projects that have been successfully implemented. It was exciting to hear about these types of accomplishments from the Challenge Grant Program partnerships—accomplishments like new playground equipment, park improvements, thriving farmers’ markets, emerging food hubs, hydroponic gardening co-ops, and flourishing community physical activity clubs. Indeed, these are significant community changes worthy of sustaining!

I then posed a follow-up question to the Challenge Grantee Program partners: “What healthy culture changes are you trying to sustain?” I saw eyes light up and felt the energy level in the room lift. This re-framing yielded much different responses than did the previous question.

For example, the Live Lively LaSalle partnership initially talked about maintaining the new splash park they developed from a 55-year-old abandoned community swimming pool and offering programs and promotions to encourage its continued use by community members. In contrast, when asked about the culture change they’ve achieved through this project and want to sustain, they enthusiastically described providing places and opportunities for kids and families to “just play and have fun. They don’t even know they’re exercising [at the splash park].”

These are some of the other things the Challenge Grant Program partners had to say about the culture changes they want to sustain in their communities:

  • “We use different language as a partnership now. The nature of our discussions is different, and always includes health and the community. We will add sustainability as an agenda item for our partnership meetings going forward.”
  • “Our partnership has more knowledge now. We need to transfer or institutionalize the knowledge and commitment of our partners.”
  • “What started out as a food project has turned into a way to provide community members with new business opportunities. Our partnership will include farmer and business training as part of our sustainability plan.”
  • “The trail we built has generated a lot of interest and support. We want to set up our next effort so that it all connects to a larger trail system.”
  • “The project has shown our agencies the value of having people work on these kinds of initiatives.” Grantee partners shared ways that their organizations are institutionalizing support for healthy community strategies, including budget set-asides to sustain specific project components, increasing staff time, and moving dollars from general funds to the parks and recreation budget.

Culture Catalyzes Sustainability_2A comprehensive and well-integrated healthy community sustainability plan includes strategies that relate both to project components as well as to a culture of health. Re-framing the question to include both can help partnerships refine strategies and activities for sustainability. Perhaps more importantly, it can prompt community partners to talk about their efforts and impact to create a culture of health with even more enthusiasm and pride.


Joanne Lee

Senior Project Director

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