Vicksburg, Mississippi is one of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Culture of Health Prize winning communities. We spoke to Michele Connelly, United Way of West Central Mississippi’s Executive Director, about Vicksburg’s local Prize Celebration event, the city’s Culture of Health efforts, and what she learned about Vicksburg’s Prize experience.
Recently, Vicksburg celebrated its win as a 2017 Prize recipient – tell me about that event, how did it go?
We combined our annual United Way agency director appreciation luncheon with our Culture of Health Prize celebration. Our partner agencies work day in and out to strengthen a Culture of Health and it was great to also celebrate their contributions to this national recognition. Attendees ranged from state and local leaders, community members, education and business officials, residents and more – it was a beautiful tribute of those proud to call Vicksburg home and honor our accomplishments.
What was extra special about the day was that everyone understood we aren’t at the end of our journey – but winning the Culture of Health Prize offers an opportunity to stop, reflect, and celebrate on our successes while we also determine how to move forward.
Was there a big announcement shared at the event?
Mayor George Flaggs, Jr., Alderman Michael Mayfield and Alderman Alex Monsour made the decision to match the prize money. Our $25,000 turned into $50,000 in the blink of an eye, and none of us knew it was coming. The support we receive from our local leaders is unique—they walk beside us, actively listening to the needs of the community and do whatever is possible to address those needs.
United Way is an important convener in Vicksburg – talk about partnerships and why they are so important to the city’s success?
I am the first to tell anyone that the number one goal of the United Way of West Central Mississippi is to bring the right people around the table—the right people to listen to and meet the challenges identified. We have the support of our community and the trust of those who want Vicksburg to succeed.
The number one responsibility of all United Ways is to bring partners together to make things happen. We’re unique in the fact that we’re boots on the ground with our partner agencies, so we hear firsthand about the concerns of all our citizens. We pride ourselves on hearing from the community to find out exactly what their concerns are. We are also fortunate to have a group of funders, advocates, and volunteers who are willing to roll up their sleeves and make a difference.
Vicksburg is very intentional about helping to create the next generation of leaders -- how does the city engage its youth in laying the foundation for a Culture of Health?
As a community, we strongly believe in the power of education. There is community-wide support for the Vicksburg-Warren School district and the United Way helps to fund some of their key initiatives including the Ford Next Generation program and The Leader In Me.
We work with the Excel by 5 initiative, which works to prepare children for preschool and kindergarten. We have also joined forces with the Mississippi Campaign for Grade Level Reading which ensures our children are reading at level by third grade.
What are some key lessons other communities can learn about your community’s Culture of Health journey?
Our Culture of Health journey started the very first time we applied for the Prize in 2015. There were several criteria that needed to be strengthened and we didn’t win that year. But afterward, we worked with Roadmaps to Health Coach, Attica Scott. She coached our Live Healthy Action Team and helped us to broaden our efforts. When we applied the next time – we won.
One of our key lessons was to look at what’s already happening and bring partners together to share ideas on how to work together to strategically advance shared goals.
We also learned about the power of meaningful data. We needed to make a commitment to use data to inform priorities, assess progress and course correct if necessary. Our board members and service agencies are more intentional about doing this through data sources like the County Health Rankings.
What’s on the horizon for Vicksburg?
We will continue to listen to each other – that’s paramount to progress. We also will be open, creative, and flexible in how we address issues our community faces.