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It’s the Thought that Counts in Sustaining Healthy Communities

By Joanne Lee on December 18th, 2015


The holiday season is a time of traditions. Across families, cultures and beliefs, customs connect us to one another and the past. They can provide a sense of comfort and are often unquestioned over generations. Yet there are times when holding on to what once worked no longer serves the original, well-intended purpose, and may no longer be the best way to achieve the desired impact.

I’ve heard friends share their struggles over maintaining traditions in ways that better reflect the evolving needs of their families. One recently broke tradition by ordering the holiday meal and found that she and her family were better able to talk and engage with each other because they were not busy with preparations and cooking. Another friend shared that her family now plans a combined Thanksgiving and Christmas event sometime between the two holidays so that relatives can travel to celebrate together.

The sentiment “it’s the thought that counts” also speaks to the way in which we should approach sustainability of healthy communities with attention to evolving needs and interests. It would be a disservice to continue something that no longer contributes to the greater health of the community. Furthermore, tallies of sustained environmental and policy changes alone is not a fair way to measure the success of a partnership or healthy community initiative.

For example, a thriving network of community gardens that was once successful at engaging residents and increasing access to fresh produce may not be the best strategy to continue over the years as conditions change, such as limited water access due to a drought. A steadfast and successful partnership might explore other strategies to achieve the same impact, such as working with local supermarket or corner store owners, or supporting a school’s food service staff in increasing procurement of fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods.

As another example, a worksite policy that was successful in affording employees flexibility to engage in physical activity programs during their lunch break could become less effective and difficult to sustain if a restructuring of shift schedules or work teams made the group activity less feasible, or if the environment around the work place changed. Instead, a policy that would enable employees to flex work time to accommodate active transportation to and from work could achieve a greater impact, especially as bicycle and pedestrian routes and infrastructure improvements occur to make active transportation more possible than in the past.

In both of these examples, the measures of sustainability extend beyond the maintenance of the community gardens and enforcement of the original worksite physical activity policy. It is important and necessary for strategic partnerships to effectively respond to and act on shifting community needs as they seek to sustain a culture of health within communities. Honoring community context matters at every stage of the work and requires ongoing assessments of the influencing factors unique to the community’s culture, assets, past achievements and current challenges. As we seek to understand sustainable healthy community change, let’s look deeper into policy and environmental change counts and remember the original intentions that led to those changes.

Photo credit: Christopher Dack

Joanne Lee

Senior Project Director

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