Community Development, Health’s New Partner

Last week, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis joined with the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), and the Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation (BC/BS) to sponsor the Minnesota Healthy Communities Conference that brought together public health and other health officials and practitioners alongside community development practitioners and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) to pursue new thinking and partnerships that can better address health outcomes and widening health disparities in communities across the state.  It was a good local start to a conversation that has been emerging nationally over the past few years.

At the center of this conversation are “social determinants of health”–the social and economic conditions of families and individuals and the neighborhoods that surround us, which are nearly half as likely to influence our health as our genetics.  In fact, BC/BS Foundation and Wilder Research have found that life expectancy can vary by as much as 13 years depending on where you live along I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, President and CEO of RWJF, inspired conference participants through her keynote address, sounding the call for not only coordination but convergence between the missions of community development and public health.  She recalled remarks from a previous Fed conference that “those who design our living environments are the most important public health workers of our time.”  She challenged the audience to get specific, rethink traditional models for return on investment, and improve how we measure this work.

These are good challenges for the community health and community development sectors to take on, and many are finding new ways to work together.  Two great community/health examples where my organization has invested are Northpoint Health and Wellness where the continued expansion of its clinic and campus can not only provide quality health services but also serve as an anchor in the redevelopment of Penn and Plymouth Avenues in North Minneapolis, improving community safety and providing access to jobs. And Frogtown Farm, where local residents are seeking to reuse the former Wilder Foundation site to increase production and access to fresh food, and protect green space within the Frogtown neighborhood in St. Paul.

Emerging are also local examples of the convergence sought by Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey.  One of the most notable being the Backyard Initiative–a community partnership led by Allina Health and the Cultural Wellness Center to engage residents in a completely different conversation and approach to their health. It is innovation playing out in real time, where deep listening and learning are core to changing the nature of the relationship between a major health provider and its patients and neighbors.  Also changing are residents’ sense of ownership and efficacy and their own relationship to each other and to institutions in the neighborhood.

These are just a few examples but there are many, many more happening across the state.  Together, these efforts demonstrate the strength of our broader community development infrastructure, in which leaders and organizations continue to collaborate and innovate to achieve greater impact.  I truly believe that community development as a sector is the key to influencing social determinants of health.  We just need to figure out how to unlock the full potential of the emerging community health and community development partnership.  I’m looking forward to continuing the conversations started last week and the many more happening in our community.