Optimism engineers are building bridges to advance equity


April 22, 2021

Every year for the past 26 years, APHA has brought the public health community together during National Public Health Week to celebrate our collective accomplishments and to increase awareness around the issues that are important to improving our nation’s health. This year, Challenge communities had the opportunity to join the national conversation and share how they are building bridges to better health

The week started off with a forum highlighting the strong role diverse and inclusive grassroots movements can play in creating healthier spaces. Wheeling, West Virginia’s HCCC coalition coordinator, Rosemary Ketchum, spoke about her experiences on Wheeling’s City Council working to rebuild the community. 

According to Ketchum, shared interests and visions are key to strengthening community. 

“It's really important that while we are community building, that we are simultaneously trust building,” Ketchum said. “In this work, if you cannot be open, you cannot expect that to be reciprocated, and that requires us to have some really tough conversations with people who we respect.” 

Following the forum, Challenge communities shared their incredible work in interactive discussions through our “Buildings Bridges to Advance Equity” event. Moderated by Heather Murphy of Wilkes County, North Carolina, the event featured the expertise of Fredando Jackson of Dougherty County, Georgia, Allen Noah of Kerrville, Texas, Margarita Holguin of Chula Vista, California, and Flor Hernandez of Cambria County, Pennsylvania on how they are using their Challenge initiatives to advance racial equity. 

The panel delved into discussions on managing chronic stress in marginalized communities, building trust with community members and engaging residents to become key players in advancing systems-level changes that encourage equity. According to Flor Hernandez and Margarita Holguin, community health workers and promotoras have played a huge role in advancing health equity in their communities. 

“Our project is centered on community participation, and obviously that is not just having the residents there, but having them be the drivers of this project,” Holguin said. 

Hernandez added that community participation not only gets people with lived experiences involved, but allows room for growth and adaptability to address local health challenges: 

“We try to engage the community by making [health disparities] come to light,” Hernadez said during the panel. “We know which issue exists in our community, so [we need to think about] how we can come together as optimism engineers to create and cultivate. Seeds are coming in, so let's water them. If something needs to be weeded out to let a new program grow, so be it.” 

For Allen Noah and Fredando Jackson, local community gardens have been the key component to increasing healthy food access for their residents. Kerrville’s community garden has brought multiple partners and community members together to talk about local health challenges. 

“[It] opened the opportunity and created space for conversation,” said Noah. “And then others in the community became aware of this neighborhood and its challenges, and they came to the table.” 

The discussion showcased how working across sectors and taking collective action can help re-imagine a future that is both equal and equitable. 

“I tell everybody, ‘we all have to get our hands dirty,’” Jackson said during the discussion. “Like we say, ‘I grow, you grow and we grow’ and one day, everyone in our community will be fed.”

Watch a recording of our “Building Bridges to Advance Equity” event

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