‘Bridging Health & Community’; the name poses a dichotomous worldview. On one side, there are the institutions; on the other, the community.
I spent the first half of my career working on the community side of the dichotomy. At one point, my primary job was to train government institutions about how to meaningfully engage with community members. I even helped create a tool to facilitate this process – the Community Engagement & Participation Checklist – based on the principles of participatory community change.
Then, about eight years in, I made a career shift that landed me on the institution side. Happily, I found myself in an institution that prioritized and practiced community partnership. One of the first things I learned, however, was that the principles I had been promoting for years were just that – principles. They didn’t play out so well in practice – especially in government (and government-funded) agencies; there are all sorts of rules and regulations about how resources may be allocated, which, ironically, often pose barriers to practicing the principles of community engagement.
Serendipitously, being able to see things from inside institutions makes it possible to understand what tactics to employ in order to elicit change. This is the unique opportunity the Bridging Health & Community team – as members of the health system – can capitalize on.
There is no shortage of non-profits advocating on behalf of community engagement, empowerment, and self-determination. Indeed, many of these organizations were represented at BH&C’s May 2017 symposium, Community Agency & Health. What there is a dearth of is participation from the health care sector in these dialogues. And I’m not referring to the community benefits or the social responsibility departments, but the business operations, care delivery, and coverage providers. This is where Bridging Health & Community is best poised to add value.
The mix of participants and programming at the symposium didn’t quite hit this mark. Despite a comment from one of my tablemates that every face in the room was new to him, they were mostly familiar to me, and mostly representing the community perspective. The programming seemed geared toward making the case for building community agency, yet most participants were already convinced of this. This isn’t to discount the value of the convening altogether. It was clearly carefully planned and well-executed, offering interesting and engaging content. But I’m not sure it achieved its full potential.
Fortunately, Bridging Health & Community is still in its nascent stages; and the need and opportunity are still ripe to capitalize on their connections in the health care sector. The team has the experience, perspective, and relationships required to create that bridge between the sector and the community. It just might require a slight shift in approach – to leverage their understanding of how to navigate and influence the health care system in order to move beyond the principles and achieve the goals of fostering agency and improving health.