Reflecting on our Symposium, Community Agency & Health

Pritpal S Tamber

June 8, 2017

In this post, our CEO & Co-Founder, Pritpal S Tamber, reflects on the recent symposium and shares some early thinking on what we’ll do next

Regular readers will have noticed that we’ve been a little silent since our May symposium. That’s partly because we needed a break and partly because there’s been so much to digest. In this post, I’ll reflect a little on the symposium and also share some of our early thinking on what we’ll do next.

 The 'setting the stage' session The ‘setting the stage’ session

For us, the symposium was an ‘alpha’, to borrow a term from product development. It was an initial attempt to design what we felt was needed of a gathering with the idea of ‘community agency’ at its core. Part of that was about bringing many stakeholders into the planning and delivery, and part of it was about creating a space for people from very different professions and perspectives to establish purposeful empathy.

What Was Liked?

Our experience, combined with the ‘rapid feedback’ provided on the last day, would suggest that we did well on both fronts. We had nine partners for the planning and delivery, and, while coordinating and aligning them was not without challenges, we got the sense that their diverse perspectives added significant richness to the content and experience.

With regards to purposeful empathy, it’ll take some time to know if any empathy established was authentic and likely to have purpose, but one of the most consistent themes from the ‘rapid feedback’ was about the variety of participants. When asked what they liked about the symposium the participants said things like:

  • “The friendships developed with so many people from different walks of life”
  • “The opportunity for different types of meaningful engagement”
  • “The design and intentionality of the engagement between participants”

What Could Have Been Better?

The point of an ‘alpha’ is to understand what the ‘beta’ could be. Participants had some pretty consistent feedback, including the desire for more case examples (we had two on the main agenda, one from South Kern, CA, and one from the Bronx, NY), the opportunity to go to more than one breakout (we had six running in parallel), more practical guidance on how to apply what was learned, and greater emphasis on the challenges, struggles, and failures in the work presented.

We assigned people to specific tables with a view to encouraging cross-sector dialogue. Many people loved being ‘forced’ to engage deeply with the kind of folks they do not normally meet, although some wanted to break free (!) and meet others. One compromise suggested in the ‘rapid feedback’ was to stick to assigned tables but have a ‘speed networking’ session. Another was to receive information about other participants beforehand so one could seek them out during breaks. All good food for thought.

 A candid conversation about failure; Carl Baty, Pritpal S Tamber & S Leonard Syme (left to right) A candid conversation about failure; Carl Baty, Pritpal S Tamber & S Leonard Syme (left to right)

Many participants wanted the symposium to go deeper into the impact of racism on health and health care. In fact, one participant told me she felt we were shirking our responsibility by not making it an explicit focus. This was echoed by others seeking more direct conversations about race – and also class, gender, power and the intersections among them. While we heard some appreciation that the event created a space for openness about these issues, the feedback was clear that we could have done more.

Incorporating ways to effectively foster these challenging conversations is clearly something we need to think about in any possible ‘beta’.

What Do We Do Next?

The symposium was informed by a survey we conducted with the registrants of our November 2015 webinar, Organizing Communities to Create Health. We intend to continue this demand-based way of working so asked the participants what they’d most like to see us do next.

 Group work at assigned tables Group work at assigned tables

It was music to our ears to hear many people say they wanted the 12 principles to fostering community agency (see our March 2017 report) to be more front-and-center in the content. We were cautious about using our principles to frame the symposium. They were still evolving into their current form in parallel with planning the symposium, and they represent Bridging Health & Community’s way of describing things, not necessarily those of the planning partners. But we are emboldened by the enthusiasm for them and will carry that forward into planning what we do next.

Many participants want us to help them to maintain the relationships created at the symposium. Some asked us to establish “platforms” for ongoing collaboration, while others wanted us to “grow the movement”. There were also suggestions of leadership training, knowledge exchange, establishing a journal, commissioning research, and providing technical assistance to apply the 12 principles to community health efforts.

What We’ll Do Next

We’ve already committed to doing three things. First, we’ve produced a tool to help communities apply the 12 principles into practice. Second, we’ve recruited Maggie Hawthorne, the former Director of Strategy and Innovation at the Camden Coalition, as our Chief Learning Officer (see about us). And third, we’re establishing a partnership with Collaborative Consulting so we can explore how to do technical assistance. There’ll be formal announcements on all three soon.

 The case studies session within the main agenda, with co-chair, Ollie Smith, speaking The case studies session within the main agenda, with co-chair, Ollie Smith, speaking

We’ll soon be sending the participants a more detailed feedback form so we can collect their deeper, lasting reflections. Maggie will help us learn from the ‘rapid’ and the ‘deeper’ to inform what Bridging Health & Community could do next, including what a ‘beta’ of the symposium might be. We’ll share that in due course.

So, Thank You

I’ll end by saying a big thank you to the participants. It’s all very well us creating the space but it only works if people are willing to step into it, to be vulnerable, and to share. It’s in that fragility, that awkwardness, one finds the seeds of tomorrow. So, thank you, well done, and see you further up the road – there’s work to do.

Pritpal S Tamber

I’m a doctor who trained as a medical editor and publisher and now researches and consults on the link between community power and health equity. My interest in community power started when I was the Physician Editor of TEDMED and is explained in My Perspective. I also work as a freelance medical editor and publisher for organisations that want to write high-quality articles and a strategy for their publishing and promotion. Find out more on my About page.

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