Keys to Building Strong Resident Coalitions in the Delta Region
Since its inception in 2011, the CHR&R coaching program has partnered with individuals and teams in nearly every state across the United States to help them identify and work toward their health and equity goals. Over the next five months, we'll be speaking with five CHR&R Action Learning Coaches and the communities they've coached to learn more about how they worked together to move with data to action.
Although the city of New Orleans has a population less than half a million, it comprises more than 80 neighborhoods, each with its own unique character and makeup. This variety adds spice to the city known as the “Big Easy,” but the reality of this sweeping diversity is that opportunity isn’t easily available to all. Dr. Torrie Harris, Health & Equity strategist for the New Orleans Health Department and founder of the New Orleans Community Voice coalition, knows this better than most.
In December of 2019, Dr. Harris and the New Orleans Community Voice team was officially accepted into the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps Delta Region Learning Cohort, which focused on engaging residents for community action. The learning community consisted of community teams from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi and was led by Action Learning Coaches Carla Freeman, Attica Scott and Ericka Burroughs-Girardi. The New Orleans team worked closely with Coach Carla Freeman, who brought years of experience as a consultant and direct work with communities to help them make progress toward their goals.
Originally, Dr. Harris saw the benefit of joining this larger network, and of the mentorship offered by the coaches like Freeman as, “a good way to bring us together to ensure that there’s still [community] voice to these issues and raising them up and holding leaders accountable to addressing them, and centering equity while doing so.”
The all-Black coalition would be coached and mentored by three Black women, a powerful image that was not lost on the team given the historic disenfranchisement and systemic racism experienced by Black communities in the Delta Region in particular. “At a micro-level, Black communities specifically, are struggling, health-wise...you don’t really have a targeted effort to improve community health in these communities, but these disparities have persisted for decades,” shared Dr. Harris of the similar challenges experienced by cities across the Delta Region.
Then, in early 2020, COVID-19 came to the United States. Health advocates and practitioners turned their attention to immediate needs and community response. County Health Rankings & Roadmaps wasn’t certain the selected teams would want to continue with the learning community. However, most of the teams agreed to move forward together. While the learning sessions were already planned to take place virtually, the one in-person gathering scheduled for August was cancelled. Dr. Harris acknowledged that keeping the coalition focused was a challenge, in light of members' other responsibilities brought on by the pandemic—as she, herself, was now overseeing local testing sites—but everyone remained dedicated to the New Orleans Community Voice.
Initially, the team was looking broadly at addressing food insecurity, but they received valuable guidance from their coach, Carla Freeman, and updated their approach: “[Freeman] recommended that we narrow down our focus...so we narrowed it down to neighborhoods and districts.” This coaching from Freeman helped the New Orleans Community Voice strategize and plan more effectively; by narrowing their scope to specific neighborhoods in New Orleans, they could increase the impact of their work.
As the New Orleans team was in the process of developing their action plan with help from Freeman, an incident occurred in the community that refueled their commitment to addressing the persistent and historical forms of discrimination that keep many Black residents from actively participating in community improvement efforts. At a public meeting, according to Dr. Harris, a City Council member characterized residents by using a racist stereotype. “It was alarming and shocking, and we were like, ‘We’ve got to say something about this and make [this person] accountable for it,’” shared Harris. Fueled to address deeper issues in the community, the New Orleans Community Voice began looking beyond petitioning for grocery stores in certain neighborhoods “We realized that’s really like a band-aid,” said Harris. Instead, the team chose to focus on public policies that create barriers to grocery stores being developed. They made a goal to identify actionable steps from community feedback and worked with the Mayor’s Neighborhood Engagement Office to hold a virtual public gathering in August of 2020, where they presented to the community the work they were doing.
“We told them what the data said and then we started asking them questions,” shared Dr. Harris, “People were very vocal and very concerned...the issues that bubbled up are that we have an elderly population that feels they have no immediate access to healthy food, because they have no transportation. The bus system does not easily allow them to get to the grocery store, and when they get to the grocery store, the food is expensive or old.”
By posing the question directly to the community, they made an immediate connection. “There was a person from the transit authority [New Orleans Regional Transit Authority] that was in the focus group, and he said that they would start building equitable strategies for these reasons,” said Dr. Harris. With this connection and with authentic feedback gathered from the community, New Orleans Community Voice also plans to present to the city council, in hopes of educating them on these issues and bringing about policy change.
Action Learning Coach Carla Freeman emphasized the importance of changing policy to change outcomes, “Somebody needs to be thinking about what’s long-term that can be put in place...and that’s the beauty of policy, right? You have to stop at the stop sign, regardless of whether or not you feel like stopping at the stop sign today.”
Following the official end of the learning cohort in December 2020, Dr. Harris plans to weave in the skills and lessons that she gathered from the experience and the support from Coach Freeman into her work going forward, sharing, “I think what has been missing in New Orleans is a community voice, in particular from the Black community. We know that there is a need. We have to make intentional space and move forward.”