Power and Building Healthy Communities: What We’re Learning

Photo used with permission from The California Endowment

This guest blog, written by Jennifer Ito, USC Equity Research Institute, offers reflections related to a recent CSSP Learning, Equity, and Power (LEaP) session, “A Foundation’s Path to Power Building and Health Equity: Lessons from The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities Initiative.” Learn more about LEaP here and watch a recording of the session here.

Since 2007, USC Equity Research Institute (ERI) has been exploring the relationship between power and healthy communities. It started—and continues—with The California Endowment (TCE) when it was developing its 10-year plan which eventually became the Building Healthy Communities (BHC) initiative. With its guideposts as healthy communities and health justice, it took a two-pronged approach in its grant-making: 1) 14 hyper-local, neighborhood-based, resident-driven comprehensive change initiatives, and 2) state level policy and systems change driven by policy advocates and communications experts. We have been involved since the planning phase to provide data and to help make sense of the initiative. 

Between 2018 and 2020, we were part of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded project Lead Local which brought together 40 grassroots community power building organizations and leaders in the fields of community organizing, public health, and social science to examine the relationship between community power and structural change towards healthy communities in 16 localities across the country. The question we researched together as a collaborative was: How do communities catalyze, create, and sustain conditions for healthy communities?

So what are we learning about the relationship between power and healthy communities? Power is fundamental to a healthy community. Our ability to shape our community is in-and-of-itself a condition of a healthy community. Our community will be healthier if we have the ability to determine what amenities are needed, to ensure high quality of services, and to keep harmful and polluting activities away from where people live and play, for example. In other words, powerlessness is a root cause of unhealthy communities. So building power in communities most impacted by inequities is critical.

In our early look at TCE’s BHC initiative, we found that organizing and building power were instrumental to the early victories in policy and systems change. For example, in Los Angeles, a youth organizing-led campaign successfully ended the Los Angeles Unified School District’s truancy ticketing policy that exacerbated the criminalization of youth. And while BHC helped to connect youth and different groups working on the issue to strategic research, advocacy, and communications, it was the leadership of youth that made the difference.

Yet we also found a tension in BHC between foundation-driven and community-driven change, which is common in philanthropic-led initiatives, in general: when a foundation holds the purse strings, it is also in control of the direction of the initiative. Understanding power dynamics within collaborative efforts is essential. Particularly in policy and systems change, professional policy advocates are often given more resources and latitude to determine what the solutions are while community organizing groups are expected to simply invite individuals who are impacted to provide support and testimony.

To rebalance and recalibrate these power relationships, we developed the concept of a power-building ecosystem. Now commonly referred to as the “power flower,” a power-building ecosystem puts community organizing at the center with policy advocacy, foundations, research, communications, and other players as the “petals.” Funders can play an important role in a power-building ecosystem by not putting themselves in the center. Rather, they should invest in the community so that people can express on their own terms what issues they are facing, determine their own priorities, and define their own solutions.

We are beginning to see more discussions about community power building both as a strategy to achieve healthy communities and as an outcome. And as a university-based research center, we are also turning the lens on ourselves. How can we apply what were are learning about the relationship between power and healthy communities to re-examine community-engaged scholarship and the particular role of academics? We look forward to the years ahead as we continue to explore the new frontiers of power, healthy communities, and the roles that each of us can play in achieving health and justice for all.

Jennifer Ito is the research director at the USC Equity Research Institute.