Community Health. Healthy Community. Semantics?

Dina Newman

February 21, 2018

Dina Newman reflects on how organizing communities around a culture of health is years old, and how it’s not the same as being a ‘community health worker’

I attended the conference as a co-presenter for a workshop titled: ‘Creating Leadership Capacity for Long-term Change’. The session explored how community capacity includes the collective ability of residents, leaders and organizations to define, pursue and achieve their goals. My co-presenter, Genoveva Islas, and I planned a fun and engaging session during which we shared brief vignettes about our community engagement work and how community transformation happens at the grassroots level. It was fabulous.

But only a few – very few – attended. I was curious about this.

Our session was in parallel to five others that sounded a whole lot more related to the ‘health care industry’. So, if the majority of the symposium participants were, in fact, from the health care sector, which certainly seemed to be the case, it made sense to me that they would attend sessions like, ‘Using Participatory Research and Evaluation’ or ‘Using Strategic Communications to Change How Health is Understood, Practiced, and Experienced’. In retrospect, then, I am not sure that we – the non ‘health care’ participants – were necessary to the goals of the meeting.

Nevertheless, our presence made for interesting conversation. “Nooooo… I am not a community health worker. I work with neighborhood leaders who are organizing their community around a culture of health.” The difference was not clear to many.

The symposium’s title was, ‘Community Agency & Health’ and I arrived not knowing what ‘agency’ meant in this context. It wasn’t until early during the second day that it finally clicked. To quote the webpage through which the tickets were sold:

“To foster community agency, the health sector must adopt, and adapt to, a more inclusive and participatory approach that requires participation in a sustained process for deriving and implementing solutions together with other sectors and community stakeholders, including residents.”

 Dina Newman raising an issue during the symposium Dina Newman raising an issue during the symposium

We non ‘health care’ folks have been doing this in our communities for years. “Nothing about us, without us!” has been the rally cry of our residents. We have listened and we have learned from the wisdom in the room, and often times the real ‘expert’ is the one we are trying to help. So, for me, what was most encouraging and enlightening at the symposium were the stories of the communities rising to meet their challenges – the case examples of the Bronx Healthy Buildings Program and the Building Healthy Communities, South Kern. With those, I raised my hand in solidarity and nodded my head in agreement, as they told their how-we-got-over stories of success.

When I reflect back on the symposium, I also remember Carl Baty. I remember the vulnerability of this man, who, with the rawest of emotions, shared his testimony of survival and resilience through addiction. I remember the stuttered silence amongst the crowd who, at first, giggled nervously, and then quickly realized that this moment was not scripted, but, indeed, was a purging of the soul for the sake of transparency and knowledge – and we had better learn something. I will forever remember Carl.

By the time the symposium came to a close I had an abundance of great handouts, a renewed sense to keep on doing what we were doing, and contact information from a few people who wanted to learn more about my work and I wanted to know more about their work.

We agreed we would stay in touch. But, we haven’t.

I’m not sure why.

Dina Newman

Director of Leadership at University of Missouri-Kansas City’s (UMKC) Center for Neighborhoods |

Dina Newman is the Director of Leadership at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s (UMKC) Center for Neighborhoods in Kansas City, Missouri. Housed in the Architecture, Urban Planning and Design Department, the Center for Neighborhoods opened in April 2016, and has contributed to the leadership development and capacity building of 40 neighborhoods and 89 neighborhood leaders. Prior to this position, Ms. Newman served as the Health Initiatives Manager/Advocate for Change, in Kansas City’s Ivanhoe Neighborhood, where she created successful and award winning-place-based strategies and campaigns to address childhood and family obesity, health/wellness inequities and social determinants of health.

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