4 Lessons Learned from Public Health and Community Organizer Partnerships

By Sari Bilick

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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.

10 years ago, when I was working as a community organizer with low-income tenants, I partnered with a local public health department on a campaign — and it was frustrating.

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.

We’re nurturing transformative change through health department and community organizer partnerships.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Are you a local public health department wanting to partner with a community organizing group?

  • 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

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