4 Lessons Learned from Public Health and Community Organizer Partnerships

By Sari Bilick

Participants from Riverside University Health System — Public Health, Starting Over Inc., and the Public Health Alliance of Southern California presenting a visual representation of their shared learnings after a year of partnership.

The frustration came from multiple sources: government moves at a different pace than organizing campaigns, trusted partners were critical of our group being too close to government, we felt like the public health department didn’t get what we were trying to do, and the list goes on and on. While the partnership was challenging, it ultimately helped lead to strategic wins to address health and building code violations in low-income housing units and built power among tenants in the community.

At Human Impact Partners, we are committed to working with grassroots, community organizers because we understand that long-term change can be most effectively and sustainably achieved through social movements, where people closest to harm are identifying solutions and building their collective power to transform society. We are supporting governmental public health to change who it works with and how it works. Specifically, we are promoting deeper engagement with communities directly impacted by inequities and supporting building their power via social movements by leveraging health resources and expertise.

Last year, HIP led a pilot project with 5 local public health departments in California called Power-building Partnerships for Health. Along with the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative and the Public Health Alliance of Southern California, we identified five county public health departments to participate in a year long partnership to support community organizing campaigns.

HIP worked with each local public health department to identify a community organizing partner in their county. Together, each team identified a campaign that the community organizing partner was working on that the local public health department could support. The local public health departments were asked to take strategic actions to support an equity-focused campaign led by the community organizing group, and the community organizing groups were asked to take strategic actions to use a health equity frame as part of their campaign.

The goal of the project was to support the development of strategic, deep relationships between local public health departments and community organizing groups to improve conditions for health.

At the end of the pilot project, when the organizing groups and local public health departments reflected on their partnerships, 4 key learnings stood out — advice I wish the public health department and I had when I was working as a community organizer to have built a stronger and more effective relationship.

1. Lean into newness

“We needed that extra help to identify a non-traditional partner. We often work with the same CBOs over and over. The time was good for us to take this step and try something new.”

- Kim Saruwatari, Riverside University Health System — Public Health

So many of us work with the same groups over and over. If we are looking for a partner who works on a particular issue, we have our go-to groups who we have worked with, have relationships with, and we know what to expect from them. While relationships and trust are important (see below), we are limiting ourselves by working with the same people over and over again. New partnerships and new ways of working can be an opportunity for transformative change.

For some of the project sites, HIP played the role of matchmaker, connecting local public health departments with community organizing groups that they may not have been aware of or had never considered working with. For other sites, the partner wasn’t new, but the ways of working together were. Each group was confronted with the challenge of sharing power and finding ways to lift up the strengths, resources, and expertise of their partners.

The process of forming an authentic relationship that was not just transactional but truly transformational was new and challenging. It went beyond a community organizing group asking the public health department for a favor to support a campaign, or the public health department asking the opinion of an organizing group as part of their community engagement. Leaning into the newness of this work helped each group navigate the bumps in their partnership and to reflect and learn from the experience.

2. Stories are data

“We were intentional in bringing people who are system-impacted to share their stories. We hear these stories all the time, but many government officials had never heard those stories which bring a different kind of health impact than just the data they have access to.”

- Vonya Quarles, Starting Over Inc.

In my training as an organizer, I was taught to value stories as critical to move any work forward. As I transitioned from community organizing into public health advocacy I quickly learned that public health practitioners give the same value to data. It was challenging for me to reconcile these seemingly different ways of thinking, but what became clear was that these tools are not mutually exclusive. Often in public health we don’t actively use lived experience and people’s stories as data itself. Throughout this project, organizers lifted up the use of stories of personal experience as data — data that should be given the same attention as hard numbers.

The Riverside team brought formerly incarcerated people and their families to a community meeting to share their stories of the barriers to housing they faced when returning home. Not only did these stories highlight the experience of those being harmed by housing policies, they also provided invaluable data that county agencies didn’t have or weren’t collecting.

The Santa Barbara team convened meetings between the Public Health Department, the Agriculture Commission, farmworkers, and farmworker advocates. When county officials leaned on data, farmworkers told their stories to counter what the data showed. Their day-to-day experience of not having access to clean toilets in the field was not reflected in the data the county was providing. Hearing these stories was the first step towards shifting the thinking of many in the room and starting to take steps to address the concerns of farmworkers.

3. Move at the speed of trust

“Invest in the time and create space to build a rock-solid trusting relationship before you start the work. I am intentional about what I want to accomplish, I make sure the expectations, hopes, and dreams are clear, and then I use that as a guide when things get rough.”

-Van Do-Reynoso, Santa Barbara County Public Health Department

HIP has been doing this work long enough to value the importance of relationship building in successful partnerships, and so this was built into the project. At our first convening, we took lots of time to get to know each other in authentic and deep ways and we encouraged the teams to continue this relationship building throughout the project.

Although we built in time to establish trust, we found that we needed to slow down even more than we realized for the teams to trust each other enough to move work forward together.

The teams reflected on the importance of relationship building and how critical that was to develop trust between the health department and the organizers — a trust that didn’t always come naturally. Taking that time to really get to know each other by sharing personal stories, sharing a meal, or showing up at each other’s events built a level of trust that allowed the projects to be more successful over the long-term. Sometimes that meant intentionally slowing down the work and not hitting every goal and benchmark.

Too often, we move through the motions to just meet our measurable goals or outcomes, when we haven’t done the work to first build relationships. Transformational work takes time and we can only move at the speed of trust.

4. Don’t be afraid to take risks

“Social change is uncomfortable. We have to lean into that discomfort and awkwardness because that is where we are growing.”

- Zulema Aleman, Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy

Participating in this project in itself was a risk. Organizers and government agencies, more often than not, are in conflict with each other. Community organizers are used to confronting those with power — particularly those in government — in bold, public ways.

It’s not surprising that a government agency may be hesitant to partner with the same people who protest outside their buildings, flood their public hearings with community members, and deliver stacks of petitions to their doors. And on the flip side, it might be frowned upon for a community organizing group to align themselves with a government agency that is part of the same county system that is locking up their families, cutting funding for public services, or ignoring their communities altogether.

At the beginning of the project, when we gathered everyone into a windowless conference room, you could feel the tension and uneasiness in the room. Each person showed up cautious, but curious and willing to try something new.

Committing to participate in the project was just the first of many risks that each group took. After building trust between the individuals in the group, each risk became a little easier to take and led to growth in ways that no one could imagine.

In reflecting on the partnership after a year of working together, not one person said that the partnership was easy. Sometimes groups took risks that led to tricky situations to navigate, and sometimes the risks led to something truly amazing and unexpected. Ultimately, the willingness to lean into discomfort led to transformational relationships between unlikely partners.

  • Find out who is doing community organizing in your community and go get coffee with them to learn about their work!
  • Subscribe to our Health Equity Capacity Building Update emails to receive updates on our resources, lessons learned from others, and tips.
  • Check out HealthEquityGuide.org for more case studies, strategic practices, and resources to do this work.
  • Contact us to learn more about our training and technical assistance services for public health organizations on inside-outside strategies to build power and advance equity

Thank you to all the groups that participated in the Power-building Partnerships for Health pilot project and informed the learnings in this piece: Alameda County Public Health Department, Congregations Organizing for Renewal, Health, Housing and Homeless Services — Contra Costa Health Services, Ensuring Opportunity: The Campaign to End Poverty in Contra Costa County, Riverside University Health System — Public Health, Starting Over Inc., Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, Solano Public Health, and Club Stride Inc. And thank you to the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative and the Public Health Alliance of Southern California for helping shape and lead the project and The California Endowment for funding that made this critical work possible.

Sari Bilick is a Senior Public Health Organizer at Human Impact Partners. She leads our organizing and advocacy work and coordinates Public Health Awakened, a network of public health professionals organizing to support social justice movements and resist attacks on our communities.

Bringing the power of public health to campaigns and movements for a just society

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