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Niagara Falls Is Creating Health through Social Connection and Trust

By Phil Bors on November 17th, 2020

Given the uncertain times we find ourselves in, social trust, and the lack of it, seems to be on everyone’s mind lately. We know that social trust and the health of communities are fundamentally linked. Yet it’s easy to find fierce dissent playing out in our social media channels and national conversations.

A committed group of residents has been quietly building trust in the City of Niagara Falls since 2015. Supported by the New York State Health Foundation as part of its Healthy Neighborhoods initiative and learning collaborative, the Create a Healthier Niagara Falls Collaborative initially set out as a city government-based initiative to improve active living and healthy eating. The Collaborative created a foundation of trust by joining forces with other Niagara Falls partners invested in the community’s health. And it evolved into a resident-led nonprofit organization that’s fully dedicated to equity, health, and social connectedness.

Most of us know Niagara Falls as a destination and spectacular natural wonder. The Falls bring tremendous economic benefit to local businesses, which employ many service-sector workers in this city of 50,000 people. But the city’s working-class neighborhoods, Highland Avenue and Hyde Park, suffer from long-term disinvestment and high levels of poverty, and in turn, there is higher mistrust of government and other institutions.

Unlike many community health initiatives, the Collaborative is led by a resident leadership team of change agents who see their charge as building trust, capacity, and lifting up the priorities of Niagara Falls’ neighborhoods. Central to the Collaborative’s approach is their belief in the power and perspective of community members to create positive change in these neighborhoods. The Collaborative’s work focuses on four key efforts:

  • Community Conversations are inspired by the Kettering Foundation model of Public Deliberation and a model in Syracuse called “Kitchen Table Talks.” The Collaborative’s Community Conversations consist of three phases: Kitchen Table Talks (smaller conversations hosted by community members), Community Conversations (larger conversations with varied perspectives from community members and local officials), and leadership training with the University of Orange and the jointly developed curriculum “Organizing with the City in Mind.”
  • Community Currency offers a “Time Banking” program where each enrolled community member’s time is equal. The program allows community members to support each other’s needs while receiving services and the ability to shop at participating food retailers in exchange for their time. Community Currency is 100% community-run and promotes community conversations, clean ups, zoom meetings, and community-based interviews in order to create an environment built on self-sufficiency and community pride.
  • Active Living initiatives offer opportunities for social connection, physical activity, and celebrations of the city’s public spaces. These include the annual Walk the Falls event, Mile n' Smile Walking Club, and a pop-up parks series of activation events.
  • Resident-Led Projects and the Collaborative’s Resident Engagement Council empowers residents to help build a healthier Niagara Falls. Project examples include community gardens, park improvements, the conversion of an abandoned house into a youth clubhouse, and a partnership with schools and city agencies to place little libraries near schools and parks.

Creating healthier communities requires a holistic approach. In Niagara Falls, community members collaborate with and support each other to build trust and social connection as necessary ingredients for well-being. Because of the Collaborative’s emphasis on resident capacity, the impacts of the work they do today will be seen long into the future.

Phil Bors

Technical Assistance Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time.