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New Partners: Smarter about Context

By Phil Bors on February 19th, 2016

A smart person in our field once said, “When you’ve worked with one community, you’ve worked with one community.” I understood this to mean that communities are unique entities. Indeed, every community—including its various neighborhoods—has its own culture, assets, history of achievement and challenges on which to build. Residents know this all too well. Too many communities experience persistent poverty, health and economic inequities and longstanding patterns of racism. Local leaders, partnerships, non-profits, government agencies and funders are wise to recognize and understand that context before engaging in community work, no matter how noble their intentions.

Community context encompasses many things, including residents’ history of organizing and previous encounters with government officials, developers and non-profit agencies. Context also relates to geography, the built environment and natural settings. Local politics, economic resources, existing programs, policies and systems also heavily determine the context in which action must occur to create healthy community change.

Last week, I was fortunate to attend the 15th annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference (NPSG), in Portland, Oregon. I first attended one of the inaugural Smart Growth meetings in 2001. Back then, my eyes opened to a new world of progressive urban planning. I was excited about the possibilities of collaborations between planners and public health professionals to help make communities healthier. But the message of those early conferences was clearly about “smart” development, and the program emphasized expensive and aspirational urban planning concepts, like mixed-use and transit-oriented development.

When I returned to the conference about ten years later, its more inclusive program amazed me. I attended sessions on the creative use of existing open space and about local partnerships combatting violence through engaging youth in public art projects and community gardens. The participating conference crowd grew bigger and more diverse, as did the speakers. It was easy to find sessions that addressed some aspect of health equity. The conference seemed to have outgrown its name, Smart Growth, which wasn’t a bad thing.

The 2016 NPSG delivered a mixture of ideas and approaches for building healthier, more equitable and sustainable communities. I learned two important lessons about community context in these sessions.

Learn by listening. In a session sharing “Tales from the Trenches,” Scott Moore y Medina from Blue Star Studio offered advice for conference-goers who are working in tribal and other communities of color. He suggested posing three “magical” questions to better understand community context:

  • What is unique about your people and community?
  • What do you value?
  • What vision and tangible outcomes (of a project) do you seek?

Don’t assume residents are buying what you’re selling. During a health networking discussion about Health in All Policies, Romona Taylor-Williams from Southern Echo, Inc. cautioned well-meaning advocates of urban agriculture to “ask longtime residents first” whether raising hens and growing their own food is a high priority for them.

We often hear the value of implementing evidence-based best practices to improve health in communities. In theory, best practices are tested and proven effective in other communities. In reality, the best strategies are only effective solutions if they align with community priorities and the context of residents’ everyday lives.

Photo: Immigrant families participate in a community bicycling event in East Portland.

Phil Bors

Technical Assistance Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time