In an effort to transform communities through cultivating neighborhood leadership, fostering social connectedness, and collectively advocating for change within neighborhoods and systems, the Rice County Growing Up Healthy project works with five specific neighborhoods within the county that have a high number of low-income, immigrant/refugee families. We have and continue to approach this mission through three interrelated areas of work:
- The work of our community organizers: Our first strategy is to create and train a cohort of leaders from each neighborhood prepared to serve as advocates within their community. Their purpose is to help communities organize and families navigate “the system” and provide a human bridge over many of the existing gaps – connecting people, programs and resources. These leaders are tasked with communicating regularly with their neighbors to find out what the issues are in their neighborhood. Then they work alongside their neighbors, with consultation from the Growing Up Healthy Coordinator, to develop and implement solutions to the identified issues. Often this includes feedback to the coalition partner organizations, requiring individual organizations to evaluate their internal policies, or requiring the partners to work together in new ways to meet the changing needs of local residents.
- Systems change: Our second strategy is to identify and address policies and structures that can improve the lives of young children and their families. This systems view can be within a single organization (e.g. evaluating an internal policy with regards to having an interpreter on call), across multiple organizations in a single sector (e.g. farmers, social service organizations, and individuals passionate about local food systems working together to bring the EBT card readers to farmer’s markets), or across multiple sectors (e.g. social service organizations, city staff, youth-based organizations, and businesses coming together to define transportation needs in the community). This work is directly informed by community members. Through consistent contact between partner organizations (“decision makers”) and community leaders, we hope to create a productive and ongoing dialog. In addition, we set a policy level agenda, analyzing which policy changes will have the greatest impact on families with young children, which ones are the most feasible, and which ones can be implemented at the local level.
- Increased community education and awareness about the social determinants of health: Our third strategy involves educating the wider community about the connections between health and affordable housing, social connectedness, social policy, and wealth vs. poverty. Our efforts here have focused on changing community attitudes toward low-income, immigrant, and marginalized families in Rice County. In the past, we have utilized the documentary series “Unnatural Causes,” which discusses the social determinants of health, to engage more than 600 individuals in Rice County in related discussions.