We sat down with RWJF Culture of Health Prize Director Carrie Carroll and Translational Researcher Olivia Little to learn more about how the suite of RWJF Culture of Health Prize reports can be helpful to communities. The RWJF Culture of Health Prize is a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. (Interview is edited for length and clarity):
What do you hope other communities can learn from these reports and the broad range of efforts underway in Prize communities from across the country?
Carroll: We were aiming to reach people who want to improve local communities and help them understand what a Culture of Health looks like by giving actionable strategies and calling out novel approaches that other communities can learn from. The focus has been on the social and economic factors, the conditions that produce health and equity, how important those are, as well as the ways leaders and partners are working together.
Little: It’s important to look across groups of winners for common themes, for the use of evidence, and for innovative strategies across places that are diverse. These reports also uplift concrete examples of how communities of various types are working to improve.
What are some of the key insights you’ve gleaned from working with the Prize communities over the years and working on this collection of reports?
Carroll: The importance of leadership. It’s not just one compelling leader: Strong leaders run throughout Prize-winning communities. The importance of leaders having a vision for what can be different. Leaders support people to take action, develop structures for a shared sense of accountability, and coordinate action and resources. These leaders are tapping networks at home and building community and connectivity with other places across the country.
Give an example from the report of changing social and economic conditions in a Prize community.
Little: One factor that really makes Prize winners stand out is that they work in really substantive ways to expand opportunities in jobs, education and housing. There’s such a wide range of evidence-informed strategies that they’re using, and integrating those strategies to improve the community. In the 2019 report, one of the really unique themes is how communities are taking an innovative approach to economic development, environmental health, and sustainability. One example is Gonzales, CA: they invested heavily in solar and wind power and they were able to use cost-savings from that to attract new businesses to come into that area. They were able to create hundreds of new jobs, reduce their carbon footprint and build public-private partnerships so that new businesses came in with fresh and new benefits for residents.
Though the Prize communities represent all types of places geographically -- large, small and in-between -- what are some of their commonalities?
Carroll: Prize-winning communities work to address the unequal social, economic, and environmental conditions. Increasingly, Prize winners offer really strong examples of residents leading the way in community improvement efforts.
What are some interesting examples you shared in these reports of how these communities sought to lift up, empower, and elevate the resident experience in their work?
Little: In the Actions Toward Equity report, we pull out concrete examples of how residents, leaders and partners are working together, especially in ways that engage those who are closest to the problems. For example, the Columbia Gorge Region is building support and leadership development for community health workers. Through that, more of those community health workers are moving into positions in the local government or being part of decision making tables and policy conversations. We also see these really inspiring examples across a lot of communities of how they’re fostering and following leadership of young people in the community. Communities like Gonzales and San Pablo in California have formal youth councils that will actually work with adult decision makers in the community, sitting in on school board or city council meetings and sharing their perspectives on issues facing their community. They then emerge and continue as adult leaders in the community who have learned firsthand the value of engagement.
What have you learned about how Prize communities have responded to times of crises in light of the events of 2020?
Carroll: The importance of strong and diverse connections in times of crisis. We are seeing that cross-sector partnerships that are already thriving, before a crisis strikes, can be tapped and bent in different directions so no one in the community has to break. Attitudes of “we’re in this together” were already in place, and I think that’s been a theme that shines through.
Little: When communities have a strong resident engagement structure in place, they already have their ear to the ground on who’s most impacted and what they need. Because of this, they can respond to challenges more quickly and repurpose their partnerships and networks to meet community needs.
When you think about the Prize communities, what gives you hope for the future?
Little: This is the year that we’ve really witnessed all of these complex challenges and inequities front and center, in terms of systemic racism, economic inequality, and political divisiveness on top of health disparities. I think that Prize communities are this ray of hope; they’re these bright spots because they are examples of places that are working to address these kinds of challenges head-on. They’ve figured out ways to come together out of adversity. Or they’ve figured out ways to do that hard work to address root causes and can serve as roadmaps for other communities looking to do similar, much needed work. That’s where the hope is.
Carroll: The leaders in Prize-winning communities are natural dot-connectors around issues. They really don’t see things in silos, and I think that’s what we need more of right now. This past year showed us how everything is so very connected. We need communities to organize and pull together to move cross-cutting issues. Climate change, neighborhood safety, mental health: These are things that affect the majority of people. If everybody, regardless of income or power, in the community can continue to come together around some of these issues, I have hope that deeper and lasting change is likely to happen.
You can learn more about the RWJF Culture of Health Prize at www.rwjf.org/prize