Across the nation, a sea change in health is happening. In small Native American communities and sprawling metropolises, rural regions, and small- to mid-size cities, people are coming together and connecting the dots between health and all the other aspects of our lives: education, jobs, housing, food, parks, community safety. They’re acting on the knowledge that our health and well-being are greatly influenced by a web of social factors, such as where we live and the strength of our families and communities.
At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we believe that seeing and acting on these connections does more than make individuals healthier. It helps our communities prosper and thrive, and by extension it raises the health of our great nation as a whole. It’s a movement taking shape that we call a Culture of Health.
In a Culture of Health, hospitals are a voice at the table on ways to prevent violence in our communities. Schools serve as neighborhood “hubs” where people can get health and social services. Social workers give those at risk of hunger prescriptions for free fresh vegetables and fruit. Artists are social entrepreneurs and changemakers, helping communities overcome racism and the roots of inequities that shouldn’t, but often do, determine how long and how well we live.
These reflections are real examples drawn from this year’s seven winners of the RWJF Culture of Health Prize. Each year, we present the Prize to honor the unique and innovative approaches of communities that have made great strides toward ensuring all residents have the opportunity to live longer, healthier, and more productive lives.
While each community embodies unique strengths and history, many face common challenges, including poverty, education gaps, lack of affordable housing and transportation, and disparities in residents’ access to health care and healthy food.
Prize-winners are endlessly creative in the ways they tackle these challenges. They imagine infinite possibilities where others might see only limitations.
Take, for example, Cecilia Gutierrez, president and CEO of Miami Children’s Initiative, which is working to improve schools, health and employment opportunities in the Liberty City neighborhood—an area hard hit by joblessness, low-performing schools, crime, drugs, and poor health. The initiative’s “cradle-to-college” support system offers services ranging from neonatal nutrition and early-learning centers to after-school programs and college prep classes. As the fruit of all that labor, Gutierrez imagines a day when thousands of kids from Liberty City will be in colleges and universities across the country.
“That’s when we’ll know that we’ve been successful,” she says.
Or Alderwoman Marla Smith, of Pagedale, MO—one of 24 contiguous municipalities in St. Louis County that collaborate to improve health, education, economic development and housing in their shared school district. She imagines a time when Pagedale, long-abandoned by businesses, will be “popping” again—when the discount supermarket, bank and cinema that opened in recent years are joined by a health clinic and a restaurant and residents can gain a greater sense of social connectedness and well-being.
Smith is talking about so much more than a fun night out when she says, “Who wouldn’t want to go have dinner and go to a movie?” She’s expressing a vision of better health for the community.
For every challenge communities face on the road to better health for all, there’s a “What if” question that may lead to a solution. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing more stories of creativity and innovation from the 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize-winners. Perhaps one of these stories will spark your own ideas around the questions: “What if MY community gave every resident the chance to thrive? And what can I do to help us get there faster?”