Key opportunities to promote health and equity go beyond the boundaries of any one program or sector.
Building Social Connections for Better Health
Janet Lewis Muth has been the coordinator of Rice County's Growing Up Healthy initiative since the planning phase in fall 2006. She has worked in Minnesota, Connecticut and Wisconsin in the youth development field, as well as in Cape Verde, West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Janet has an undergraduate degree in Spanish from Oberlin College in Ohio and holds a Master's Degree in Public Health from the University of Minnesota with a concentration in Community Health Education.
The Rice County Growing Up Healthy initiative began in 2006 with a 10-month planning process to better understand the needs of low-income families with young children, bringing together multiple agencies that already were actively engaged in improving the lives of young children. Some represented the health sector, some early childhood development, some community connections, and some organizations that represented basic social services including safe and affordable housing. The planning project allowed these active agencies and organizations to identify the needs of low-income families through a grassroots process and to engage in a new level of partnership benefiting the entire community.
Through a series of focus groups, we learned that the issue in Rice County is not so much a lack of programs, services or resources, but rather a disconnect between the people who need to access existing services and the people, agencies and systems that provide them. Additionally, the repeated requests for advocacy and relationship building seemed to indicate that families with young children are not just feeling disconnected from the system, but from each other and from the community at large.
A body of research supports the idea that community connectedness (also referred to as social connections, social ties and social capacity) can improve health outcomes on many levels. It has been linked to lower levels of child abuse, maltreatment and neglect (Horton, 2003), improved disease resistance, longer life, and improved health outcomes following stressful events (Berkman, presentation to the NIH, 1997). We believe that if vulnerable Rice County families are better informed and connected (to each other, to existing services, to their neighborhoods, to the community as a whole), and if the community is engaged with these families in new and different ways, the result will be more positive health outcomes for families, and specifically for children from birth to age five.
In an effort to maximize the impact of our work, the Rice County Growing Up Healthy project targeted three specific neighborhoods within the county that have a high number of low-income families with children under the age of five. One of the neighborhoods identified is in Northfield (Viking Terrace) and two are in Faribault (Cannon River Mobile Home Court, and the area of apartment buildings south of Division St. that includes Greenwood Place, Halter Apartments, and the Four Seasons complex).
Identifying and developing community leaders
Our first strategy was to create and train a cohort of neighborhood leaders prepared to serve as advocates within the county. Their purpose was 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. A cohort of 12 leaders learned to transform their latent leadership skills to participate as aspiring organizers in their neighborhoods, becoming familiar networking experts, skilled in resource identification, community-building and ombudsman advocacy roles. The team of leaders in each neighborhood works to assist the neighborhoods to identify and address specific needs that are unique to their neighborhoods and are of concern to a critical number of residents in the neighborhood.
Examples of major accomplishments to date include:
• Neighborhood improvements (weatherization supplies, home repairs, signage and speed bumps to improve safety for children at play)
• Creation of a community garden
• Development of a multicultural cooking club; a “Spanglish” learning activity, where pairs of participants alternate speaking English and Spanish for five minutes each; and Mondays in the Park for Somali women and children to practice speaking English while engaging in fun and relaxing activities
Building and sustaining coalitions
Our second strategy involves adapting the system to meet the changing needs of young children and their families. Through consistent contact between the Growing Up Healthy Advisory Board and the cohort of neighborhood leaders, we have created a dialog between the directors/coordinators of the partner agencies and the community members who utilize the programs. In addition, we have set a multi-year 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.
Examples of successes include:
• Provided EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card readers at farmers markets to make healthy produce available to low-income families
• Created a mobile system for delivering educational resources to communities where transportation is a significant barrier
• Played an active role in the formation of the Northfield Grassroots Transit Initiative to identify and address basic transportation challenges
Making the connections
Our third strategy involves educating the wider community about the connections between health and affordable housing, social connectedness, social policy, and wealth vs. poverty. We have used a multi-media approach, which includes video screenings of the California Newsreel documentary “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick,” e-mail newsletters to staff of our member organizations and presentations to service organizations and member groups.
In addition to our funding from the Blue Cross Foundation, we have been able to leverage an additional $27,300 for our work. The project’s success is directly related to relationship building at every level with the belief that everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner in order to have an ongoing, genuine relationship.