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Our Shared Humanity Is the Foundation for Cohesive, Resilient, and Equitable Communities

By Olivia Little on November 10th, 2021

Still reeling from the recent and compounding impacts of a global pandemic, systemic racism, social unrest, political divides, and climate emergencies, local leaders are taking a hard look at how to promote recovery, restoration, and healing within their communities.

Addressing these complex challenges will require building upon lessons from recent events, including:

  • Racial and economic inequities are deeply embedded, and they persist and worsen during crisis. Long-term, systemic actions are needed to address these gaps.
  • We are all interconnected. The actions of individuals and groups within and across communities affect one another, and everyone has a role to play in making change.
  • Community-led efforts, such as grassroots organizing, social movements, and resident-driven solutions, are crucial for responding to crises and building capacity for long-term change.

In other words, it will require bold, collective responses that bring people together, build trust, and draw from the strengths and assets of every segment of the community. And this work begins by recognizing and leveraging our shared humanity. The recent report, Socially Connected Communities: Solutions for Social Isolation, underscores the importance of strengthening our social fabric and taking a shared humanity approach to effect sustained change. It states:

During this pivotal moment in history, it is more important than ever for local leaders to work with residents to create socially connected communities. This priority can help address past and current traumas due to structural and systemic oppression, and build more cohesive, resilient, and equitable communities where everyone is able to thrive.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Culture of Health Prize-winning communities offer important lessons for how community leaders can embrace our shared humanity to drive change.

In Eatonville, Florida, the first Black incorporated municipality in the U.S., community leaders have found ways to center resident voices, embrace cultural strategies, and involve those most impacted by challenges in shaping solutions. Efforts in Eatonville include ongoing resident involvement and leadership opportunities through community organizing, civic engagement trainings, and leadership development. Residents were engaged to help revise an outdated town charter, resulting in more transparent, understandable government functioning that is aligned with community goals and state policy. Leadership Eatonville was formed to build capacity for residents of all ages through a 12-month program which equips participants with skills, tools, and supports to implement resident-led improvement projects that benefit the whole community.

In Gonzales, California, community leaders have focused on developing leadership skills and pipelines for all ages, promoting a sense of ownership, pride, and belonging within a community. A Youth Council of middle and high school students was formed to bring youth voice and leadership to local decision making. Two youth commissioners are appointed each year to serve as advisors to city government, the school board, and other decision makers. The youth council gathers information from peers, plans events, informs community programming, and advocates for policy change. For example, the council helped develop and pass a local social host ordinance to address underage drinking, and is designing a teen innovation center, financially supported by the city and State Senator Caballero, to provide students with space and resources for enhancing their academic studies.

In Sitka, Alaska, the community is addressing deep-seated disparities by acknowledging and addressing past injustices. They have worked to recognize and honor the leadership and culture of Sitka’s indigenous people, who make up a quarter of their population, as integral to their social, cultural, and political fabric. The Sitka Health Summit coalition, formed over a decade ago, has helped improve understanding about native Tlingit history and culture and the effects of colonization on Alaska Native People. As a result, citizen planners advocated for Sitka to become a trauma-informed community. One impact has been joint training and planning between state and tribal social services and courts personnel, creating a more culturally sensitive process for keeping Native families intact. Sitka now has Alaska’s lowest rate of Native children being removed from their homes in child welfare cases. The school district incorporated culturally relevant pedagogy and renamed schools to honor Tlingit roots over Russian colonizers. Since 2017, Sitka has celebrated Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day, and grassroots groups are advocating to shift Sitka’s celebration of Alaska Day toward a Reconciliation Day that would promote inclusive cultural awareness and healing rather than celebrating the transfer of stolen lands from the Russians.

These Prize-winning communities bring to life the recommendation from the Socially Connected Communities report to incorporate inclusive practices and community-led solutions. They demonstrate that ongoing efforts to build relationships and connectedness across the community, with a focus on equity and inclusion, can bolster communities’ ability to respond nimbly and effectively to the challenges we are facing.

There is no time to waste. Supporting connectedness, belonging, and leadership among all residents – and especially for those most often excluded – improves not just individual well-being but the strength and resilience of communities as a whole.


Photo credit: Casey Horner,

Olivia Little

Olivia Little is a Translational Researcher at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. She supports the RWJF Culture of Health Prize program and researches how local communities are improving community health broadly through strategies to advance equity, inclusion, and belonging.