Reimaging Peer Connections, An Interview with the Challenge Team

Celebrating Year 1
June 24, 2021

When the Challenge team released their request for proposals in December 2019, there was no global pandemic. 2 years later, Challenge grantees have successfully adapted their projects and responded to shifting needs as the urgency to build healthier communities has substantially intensified.   

“I think our biggest concern in the very beginning was that the Challenge team had asked for applications in January not knowing that there would be a pandemic,” said Technical Assistance Director of Healthy Places by Design Phil Bors. “And so, the big question going into the interview stage of the review process was, ‘Can you still do the things that you’ve proposed that you want to do?’ And if not, ‘How can we be flexible and responsive, while offering the opportunity for grantees to adapt to shifting priorities within their communities?’"

The Challenge team selected projects through a review process that looked at a variety of factors, including intended impacts on systems and policy change and coordination of diverse partners around common priorities. Despite the many unknowns and changes resulting from COVID-19, a silver lining that emerged: the Challenge’s core priorities of food access and access to health services both became extremely important within the context of the pandemic.

“For many of the communities, their overarching priorities really didn't change,” said Brittany Perrotte, HCCC Project Director at APHA. “It was perhaps just the way they needed to operationalize their work to meet both immediate needs and to be able to think about the long term [that changed].”

The grant’s flexible nature enabled grantees to plan their projects after funds were already awarded to work with their partners and think about the ways they needed to tweak their projects to meet changing conditions.

“The grant works to really try and shift the power balance between us as the Challenge team, and the grantees to acknowledge from the very beginning that they are the experts on the work that they're doing,” Brittany said. This shift from a traditional funder-grantee relationship is part of what enabled the 20 communities to assess their local contexts and make decisions about how to proceed during the pandemic.

This philosophy also helped to shape the capacity-building activities. One of the most critical aspects of this initiative is the cross-cohort learning encouraged in the Challenge’s peer learning network. The nature of the peer learning network is meant to be a space for shared learning.  When Gabriella Peterson joined the Challenge team in January 2020, her biggest concern as an events and meeting coordinator for Healthy Places by Design was how the cohort was going to connect.

“There was a lot of uncertainty and unknown for me at the beginning of the Challenge, particularly with our peer learning opportunities,” Gabriella said.

Fortunately, despite having to switch to completely virtual, Challenge project teams were open and excited to establish a collaborative, virtual culture of exchange and learning.

“Every time they meet to talk, you can tell they just take so much away from each other,” Gabriella said. “And each time they connect virtually they get more comfortable with one another.”

In doing so, project teams have been able to establish important peer connections with each other and cooperatively develop solutions to any hiccups in their Challenge work.

“The cohort has done a really tremendous job of finding ways to bring partners together during a pandemic,” Brittany said. “They have found opportunities to actually leverage the momentum around the pandemic, work across silos that historically had been in place, bring partners into some long-term systems-change planning and to create space virtually for members of their community to have a voice.”

These connections will be vital as their Challenge work progresses into its second and final year. And, as things begin to open across the nation, more new and exciting opportunities are expected to arise for the cohort.

Said Aetna Foundation Executive Director Amy Clark, “I am looking forward to seeing how our grantees will accelerate their projects now that communities are once again meeting in person.”

Watch webinars on the latest science

COVID-19 Conversations APHA National Academy of Medicine