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Creating healthy communities requires addressing the holistic needs of residents —including their access to medical care, nutritious food, stable jobs, affordable and accessible housing, good air quality, and safe neighborhoods. The most effective efforts also involve members of the community in developing the vision and driving solutions.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Culture of Health Prize recognizes the extraordinary efforts of cities and towns that are mobilizing people and stakeholders to work together on a shared vision. While many of these efforts are still in the early stages, the models have real potential for creating meaningful change on a community-wide level.

Encouraging Community-Wide Collaborations and Acknowledging Successful Community Wellness Efforts

“The Culture of Health Prize grew out of the awareness that there were communities already doing this work—rallying residents and community and local leaders around a shared commitment to health, opportunity, and equity,” said David Adler, Deputy Director of Healthy Communities at RWJF.

The program provides important recognition for communities selected. Along with a $25,000 prize to support their work, winning communities gain access to communications tools to promote their efforts, as well as valuable opportunities to connect with other prize winners to share ideas and strategies.

“The goal of RWJF’s program has really been to show what is possible, and to demonstrate that building a culture of health is possible in any community,” Adler said. He also stressed that insurers can play an important role in these types of community-wide collaborations. “The key is for payors to really understand what the community needs and to be willing to put support behind that. Access and costs of healthcare are issues that come up in many communities, and so insurers should be making sure they are doing whatever they can to support access to high-quality care. But of course, healthcare is only one piece of health. So encouraging insurers to look beyond the healthcare system and get involved in community health coalitions is important as well,” he said.

Tailoring Solutions for Community Health Needs

Adler pointed out that the most effective communities don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach for effective multi-disciplinary collaboration; rather, they take the time to explore what works best for them and their circumstances. They also often bring together a range of local stakeholders, such as local businesses, public and private organizations, healthcare agencies, and payors, around a shared vision of community health.

The following examples, all 2020–21 RWJF Culture of Health Prize winners, illustrate how different communities approach multi-disciplinary collaboration and customize their efforts to meet local needs and create sustainable change.

Community-Led Solutions in National City, California

National City, California, has approximately 60,000 residents, many low-income, which makes it difficult to raise enough tax revenue to support essential services and programs. But with widespread partnerships, they are finding ways to make it work.

“The City collaborated with Olivewood Gardens Learning Center and the Environmental Health Coalition to apply for the RWJF Culture of Health Prize. We are working to improve equity, improve access to healthy food, build age-friendly communities, and partner with community groups and residents to achieve collective goals,” said Megan Gamwell, Special Projects Manager at the city of National City.

“Last year National City also received nearly $8 million through competitive grant programs meant to encourage smart growth, biking, walking, and transit ridership,” she said. Some of the positive impacts that the city hopes to realize over the long term include: encouraging more people to engage in regular exercise, providing transportation to help people more easily access food and services and get to work, and reducing the public health and environmental impacts of vehicle transmissions.

Community-Led Solutions in Worcester, Massachusetts

Worcester, Massachusetts, brings key stakeholders and residents together. “Worcester is a diverse and rapidly changing community with strong Latinx, African, African American, Southeast Asian, Albanian, white, and other communities. We face disparities in social determinants of health and have a history of institutional racism,” said Casey Burns, Director of Healthy Greater Worcester.

“However, we also have a history of collaboration around tough issues, and connectivity in our community is a great strength,” she added. “We created a shared regional Community Health Improvement Plan that has helped us come together with a shared vision and systems of coordination and accountability to move toward our goals.”

Some of the programs under way include free community education on racism and trauma-informed approaches, free summer programs for youth in public parks throughout the city, mobile farmers’ markets, community and school gardens, and youth urban agriculture programming. The community has also created opportunities for people to use their own experiences with violence to develop programming to combat the problem. The approaches seem to be paying off. For instance, since focusing attention on combatting violence and providing resources to better support the needs of high-risk youth, arrest rates for young people are down, as are incidents of youth violence.

Community-Led Solutions in Drew, Mississippi

Drew, Mississippi, is a small, rural town that “is leaning into resident-led solutions to think big about what is possible,” explained RWJF’s Adler. “They enforced city policies to demolish blighted homes in order to make underutilized land available for new, affordable homes. They also built safe gathering places for families to encourage a sense of community.” The town also recently collaborated with a health service provider to bring a mobile van into the neighborhoods where people live and work so they can easily access free primary care, and sexual health and reproductive services. In addition, an online grocery system increases access to nutritious food for residents of the town whose nearest grocery store 10 miles away.

Community-Led Solutions in Thunder Valley Community

Thunder Valley Community, Oglala Lakota Nation (Oceti Sakowin Territory), is a Native American community where tradition and innovation go hand in hand. “Cultural traditions permeate the community’s education and health improvement efforts, from steeping Lakota language and traditions into educational programming at the Immersion Montessori school, to placing well-being at the center of its workforce development strategy,” Adler said. Weaving tradition into local programs and initiatives has helped people to become more active participants in caring for their own health and the health of their families. The hope is that this momentum will continue to grow and help future generations claim healthier futures, as well.

Cross-Sector Collaboration is Key

“Prize-winning communities understand that collaboration within and across sectors is needed to achieve long-lasting change, that resident voice is essential, and that cooperative approaches to address social and economic disparities rather than isolated strategies lead to promising results,” said Adler.

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