In May 2017, Bridging Health & Community hired me to cover the Community Agency & Health Symposium in Oakland, California. I was to wear several hats: as a qualitative researcher, I would serve as rapporteur for the symposium; as a transcriptionist, I would produce transcripts of the audio files recorded throughout the two-day event; and as a writer, I would produce a synthesized report of the transcripts using my rapporteur experience as a backdrop. I’d worked a good deal in the field of community development, but my experience with healthcare, per se, was limited. While I’d done some preliminary research, I didn’t have a clear picture of what I was getting into when I entered the grand ballroom of the Marriott Hotel.
The room was abuzz with conversation and energy. Clearly, some people had met before, while many others had not. Table seating was assigned to cross-pollinate various sectors of participants, and from my table, and my observations within the room, this proved fruitful. There was a keen interest in knowing who else was working in the field of community agency and health, what they were doing, how they were doing it. It was as if a tribe had found itself. As one participant told me, it was a “relief” to be able to talk about the complexity of the work and to have valuable conversations.
Throughout the day, panel presentations and discussions pertaining to the field – its successes and failures, challenges and ways to tackle them, stories of hope and heartbreak – illuminated the complexity of the situation, and I began to connect the dots. Poor housing conditions and expressways running through communities will, of course, lead to high rates of asthma. A region that produces and exports 25 percent of America’s table food yet leaves its neighbors in a food desert with polluted water will, of course, lead those residents to high rates of diabetes and hypertension. When self-determination is undermined, particularly in poor communities, the road to good health is fraught with stumbling blocks, with or without a dose of prescription medication.
Diane taking notes during a table top session at the symposium (photo by Nicolle Bennett)
With a clearer understanding of the situation, I simultaneously felt overwhelmed and hopeful (if not secretly relieved my job that day was limited to rapporteur). The challenges of building healthy communities that foster collective and individual agency, thereby promoting health and wellbeing, seemed monumental. Yet examples of success were clear, tools and principles key to health were developed, and those involved in the movement to create the change seemed ready to take action. There appeared an ardent interest in moving this field forward, a desire to change entrenched models, and determination to find ways to go about it.
Participants were diverse and knowledgeable. A warm fellowship, the opposite of sterile, and an appreciation for the combined wisdom and experiences in the space remained evident. As well, a sense of adventure existed, of being on the ground floor of something that might actually take off. At times the energy and concentration was palpable, both in the ballroom and, later the following day, in the breakout session I attended. This interest played out in other breakout sessions I eventually transcribed.
Ultimately, synthesis of 215 pages of transcripts lead me to envision the human body as metaphor for this field, all the workings within it connected and circulating back to the whole. The transcripts revealed overriding themes, like process and power and funding (always funding). Just as importantly, however, were themes of the heart (opening hearts, listening with your heart, giving from your heart), personal transformation, reflection, healing, humility, and courage.
What will you keep doing, what will you stop doing, and what will you start doing in light of what you’ve learned? (photo by Nicolle Bennett)
Among the list of challenges, funding was ever present: funding for infrastructure, funding outside of corporate or foundation mechanisms, funding to provide innovative space, to go beyond pilot programs and bring initiatives to scale, funding for knowledge share-back. Other challenges included issues of race and racism, how to institutionalize civic infrastructure, how to change mindsets, shift power structures, address issues collectively as a community and a nation, and how to spread the word about this field.
In the wake of completing my job, I see things with a sharper focus. I examine my own agency; if it feels demeaned in any way I consider the threat it holds over my wellbeing, and, by extension, that of my community. I try to listen to others with a deeper understanding. I contacted my local hospital, encouraged them to take part in Bridging Health & Community’s efforts to recruit organizations that will put the principles into practice. These are small things, but, as I learned at the symposium, seeking partnerships and fostering agency to improve health is a process, and we must start where we are and from there move forward.