The Legacy of Coaching in Vicksburg, Miss.: Building a Lasting Impact
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.
From a bluff overlooking the Mississippi sits Vicksburg, a 2017 Culture of Health Prize winner, a city with a strong community of 23,000. News headlines often highlight the poor health outcomes and economic challenges that plague the state of Mississippi—but it’s those exact pain points that have fueled community leaders in Vicksburg to rewrite their own narrative and explore ways to invest in the health and well-being of all residents. In this pursuit, they have picked up important allies along the way.
In 2015, Vicksburg was disappointed to learn that they were not accepted as an RWJF Culture of Health Prize finalist. Despite this news, when the opportunity to receive support from a County Health Rankings & Roadmaps Action Learning Coach was offered to the community, they responded with a resounding “yes.” Led by Linda Fondren, the executive director of Shape Up Mississippi, the city set its path on advancing their journey to improved health and well-being and Action Learning Coach Attica Scott was committed to work right alongside them.
“Vicksburg was one of the first teams that I coached,” shared Scott, reflecting on her work with the community. One of the first tasks Scott suggested to the community was to form a cross-sector team that would receive the coaching. The Live Healthy Action Team (LHAT) consisted of representatives from the local United Way, Chamber of Commerce, the Warren County School District, City of Vicksburg and more. Joining forces allowed the group to streamline and target their efforts more strategically. “There were a lot of organizations out there doing the same sort of work, so this was a great opportunity to partner with those other organizations, and Scott’s recommendation helped us do just that by saying ‘you need a team’,” recounted Fondren.
Fondren knew that Vicksburg could do better, but it was unclear where to focus their efforts. Coach Scott, their "cheerleader," urged the LHAT to push the envelope and think beyond their individual organizations and to also explore systems improvements in areas of education. One of the most helpful things that Scott did was ask questions to help the team find their own solutions. “What that did was allow us to figure out what role we could play to help bring change. We were no longer team members, but friends bound by a shared vision,” shared Fondren.
Urging the community to reflect on their progress and value the change they were creating was just one of the ways that Scott impacted the Vicksburg community. The city had already made strides. Scott encouraged the LHAT to savor their successes while also tackling other challenges. For Vicksburg, one area they rallied around was the high school graduation rate, which they had worked hard to increase. Even though there was still room for improvement, the community was definitely headed in the right direction—something worth celebrating.
“And then we really dug into coaching,” commented Scott, understanding that success can often beget more success if momentum isn’t wasted. From there, Scott led LHAT to embrace and build on some of Vicksburg’s best, existing assets. During their coaching period, Scott assigned Fondren and the LHAT a lot of homework.
- First came The Leader In Me, an effort at the local school district to build the next generation of leaders. The Vicksburg-Warren School District, with support from community leaders, has embraced the initiative for all of its schools. The approach, honed by the late author Stephen Covey, is seen not just as a tool to help young people set goals but also encourages them to leave a lasting, positive impact on the larger community. The first two schools that implemented the program saw an almost 50% drop in discipline referrals and an almost 10% reduction in absenteeism. Today, graduation rates are up to 76%, a sign that the community is making solid progress. Vicksburg is also investing in its young people with its plan to renovate and create a more inviting learning experience for all students. The school district is building an Academy of Innovation as well.
- Coach Scott helped LHAT expand their thinking to make the city-wide community garden an intergenerational space for young children and older adults to come together, learn about health, and enjoy being outside, connected to nature and opportunities for physical activity. The garden continues to grow and give sustenance to the community at large as evidenced by how residents facing economic hardship have relied on the garden for fresh produce during the coronavirus pandemic.
- Courageous conversations around race were also an important part of Vicksburg’s evolution during their coaching experience. A nearby civil war park, Vicksburg National Military Park, sparked an important dialogue about making Vicksburg more welcoming for the city’s Black community who hadn’t traditionally used the park. This led the community to reflect on their shared history and trauma and conduct more intentional outreach to communities of color. The "Our Shared History, Our Shared Community, Our Shared Health” walking program marked the start of Black History Month and was later expanded in 2016 to include the Walk with a Doc Program, where walkers enjoyed a walk with healthcare professionals who answered their health questions. As a result of these efforts, more Blacks are enjoying the recreational benefits of the park. These walks are now annual events, and park officials work to ensure that the community feels welcome to explore, exercise, and enjoy nature. Conversations around race and health started more than five years ago and are still central and resonant to ongoing discussions around racial injustice.
Not only did coaching keep them focused on their work, but Scott’s partnership with the community “taught us how to communicate with each other as a team,” recounted Fondren, who described the experience as “electrifying.”
Scott also provided guidance on collecting data and using it to inform priorities and track their progress. Fondren shared that they “learned there's no real evidence of success or failure without data. And it's something that was not in our mind about putting together all this data, so we began to question, ‘Are we doing good deeds? Are we helping shape up our community in concrete ways?’ The coaching helped us figure that out.”
When Vicksburg reapplied for the 2017 RWJF Culture of Health Prize, their strengths and growth shined. The collaborative spirit of the LHAT fostered meaningful change. Their more strategic focus has led to a more holistic course of action and more accountability and shared responsibility among partners. This time, they won the Prize.
Even five years after their coaching started, Scott still calls Vicksburg an example of what a community can do. Scott reflected that “continuing to watch the progress Vicksburg has made over these past five years has also helped me in my coaching...they're part of our family that's focusing on public health and truly building a Culture of Health.”
Vicksburg doesn’t just “sit” on that bluff overlooking the Mississippi River: Its residents continue to actively work together to rewrite a new narrative of health and opportunity for all in their community today and for future generations tomorrow. “If it was not for [Scott], I’m not sure where we’d be today,” concluded Fondren.