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Do mobile programs perpetuate racial disparities and health inequities?

By Risa Wilkerson on November 12th, 2019

After a grassroots community partner questioned the efficacy of a local mobile play program, senior project officer Tim Schwantes paused for a conversation with the program's funder to explore tough questions about the long-term impacts of their investments.

I was having lunch with a funder a few weeks ago, and we were talking about their new mobile play program. The van full of play equipment travels at set times to low-income neighborhoods deemed to have limited access to play spaces. The program recently received a lot of press, and city staff were excited about it.

Over the years, versions of this model have been deployed around the country. In fact, this was not the first time I had discussed mobile programming with a funder. Healthy Places by Design, through more than a decade of working with communities to improve health, has coached communities through similar efforts, such as mobile farmers’ markets that increase access to healthy food.

Back to that lunch conversation. A week earlier, a grassroots partner had questioned the efficacy of the mobile play program, which gave the funder pause. We reiterated how the program is accomplishing its goals, and at the same time, we wanted to understand the partner’s concerns.

On one hand, more kids and families, particularly those in communities of color, now have an opportunity to be active outdoors in their own neighborhoods. There are opportunities for more social connection. The parks and recreation department, which houses the mobile play program, is learning how to reach residents it doesn’t always connect with through traditional programming. Indirect benefits include great photos and inspirational stories to use in promotional materials, local news bits, and on social media. At first glance, the upsides to this program seem clear—which is why versions of this program pop up around the county.

Yet as we kept talking, we began to ask ourselves tougher questions. Do mobile programs, despite their benefits, also perpetuate the very problems they seek to solve? Mobile programming is notoriously hard to sustain unless it is embedded in a system and prioritized with its own line item in a budget. (Isn’t this the case for most programs?) Unless a program is strategically working toward sustained policy and/or systems change, it may unintentionally keep people reliant on gatekeepers for services, which just reinforces existing inequities. In addition, if programs aren’t connected to longer-term changes, they can do further harm by actually being perceived by decision makers as a sufficient solution… until funding runs out. This sense of success is due in part because promotional materials and social media posts work! People understandably respond with enthusiasm to the photogenic kids having a blast, and are distracted from viewing the program for what it may actually be: a band-aid solution.

Quick fixes allow policy makers to kick the can further down the road (or ignore underlying systemic issues altogether) and avoid tougher questions, like:

  • Why doesn’t this neighborhood have greater access to opportunities for healthy living?
  • What would it take to build more permanent infrastructure in this area?
  • And most importantly, what produced this inequity in the first place, and is that legacy still a policy or practice we’re following?

I’m not opposed to mobile play or food programs, but it's important to remember that programs should be in service to more impactful, longer-term policy or systems changes.

The funder I spoke with a few weeks ago is actively examining the longer-term impacts of their investments, asking, “Are we undermining our original intent and actually perpetuating racial inequity and furthering health disparities?” This is the question for any organization that wants to create lasting, meaningful improvements in health and equity. When thinking about efforts through this lens, short-term success metrics like media coverage don’t matter as much as what that program could mean for neighborhoods 20 or 30 years from now.

Healthy community change takes longer than a grant cycle and requires more than one program. But when grants and programs shift the conversation about goals and outcomes and introduce new possibilities to decision makers and community members—all while giving children and families safe places to play and connect—they can bring us one step closer to creating healthier communities.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.