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Exploring New Waters

By Mary Beth Powell on October 8th, 2014

Think you’ve exhausted all options? Reach out to some new players.

Stretching beyond one’s comfort zone and into a different field of work can be intimidating. “I try to stay in my lane; I already have all I can do,” explained a good friend of mine, the executive director of a community development corporation (CDC). I’m sure that many people share her sentiment: “Let me stay involved in my own field, the one in which I have been trained and feel comfortable. I don’t have time to venture out or learn about a new one.” However, reaching out to new fields and networks can also reap great benefits. One of the most exciting—and difficult—aspects of healthy communities work is learning the unique principles of, and language used by, colleagues in other disciplines who work in the same “space,” but from a different perspective. Cross-disciplinary investigation opens up a whole new world of alternate approaches, potentially new sources of funding and new ways of thinking.

When faced with funding challenges, particularly for infrastructure development (e.g., parks, playgrounds, bike lanes, sidewalks, etc.), I would often ask our Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grantees if they had connected with community development professionals to explore the availability of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) or other sources of U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding. Many were unfamiliar with the field and had not thought to explore common ground while others responded with the question: “Don’t those people just do affordable housing?”

Far from it. While CDBG funding is primarily for neighborhood revitalization and is targeted toward low- to moderate-income populations, it often requires a significant amount of citizen input to prioritize and fund projects that a community has determined it needs. In many cases, those funded projects support built environment changes necessary to foster active living and health eating.

The National Reinvestment Corporation, also known as Neighborworks America, supports a network of 240 of the nation’s best CDCs. A national community development assistance organization, Neighborworks serves as a unique bridge between the health, environmental protection and community development worlds. Through grants, training and technical assistance, Neighborworks supports the efforts of the network of CDCs across the country to develop and strengthen healthy homes and communities. These efforts include:

  • Helping residents identify and take action on local health problems.
  • Creating vibrant community gardens and community-supported agriculture.
  • Improving the health and safety of housing by reducing asthma triggers, remediating lead hazards and preventing injuries.
  • Helping seniors stay healthy in their own homes as long as possible.
  • Working with local partners to build sidewalks, bike lanes, playgrounds and parks.
  • Cleaning up vacant lots and other environmental hazards.

Another important player in the community development field that can be a tremendous asset to your healthy community work is the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). LISC initiated its Building Sustainable Communities program in 2007 to offer neighborhoods a way forward to developing stability and promoting growth. It helps transform streets marked by chronic poverty and stagnation into good places to live, work, do business and raise families. Both Neighborworks America and LISC are well known in the community development world, but are often unknown and untapped resources by more traditional health, planning and transportation professionals who work in the healthy community space.

Getting familiar with a new field or discipline takes time, but the rewards are many. Community development advocates may not be fully aware of how healthy community work dovetails nicely with their work, and a cross-fertilization of ideas may even achieve some common goals. So next time you’re stumped, explore some unfamiliar territory right in your own community.

Mary Beth Powell

Environmental advocate, and die-hard Carolina basketball fan. Former Senior Project Officer at Healthy Places by Design (then Active Living By Design).