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What It Looks Like to Build a Culture of Health During COVID-19

Written by Carrie Lee Carroll on October 6, 2020

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How Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Culture of Health Prize communities have learned the importance of not needing to exchange business cards during a pandemic.

RWJF Culture of Health Prize winners work continuously to evolve the culture of their community to one that realizes health, opportunity, and equity for all. We have heard from many of the 40+ Prize-winning communities in recent months about how they are responding to COVID-19. It is apparent they have much in common in how they consistently look to strong and diverse connections in times of crises.

1. Leveraging Cross-Sector Partners for Rapid Adaptive Solutions.

With 2020’s convergence of crises—COVID-19, the recession, our country’s reckoning with systemic racism, climate change—Prize winners are relying on the robust partnerships they have long had in place. Prize leaders have invested time in not just figuring out “who is who” in their community and making connections but in building well-established relationships rooted in mutual action and accountability.

This includes listening to what the community is saying, most importantly, those highly impacted by poor health outcomes. For example, more than seven years ago, the City of Gonzales, Calif., empowered their young people to work alongside local leaders to shape governmental and school policy changes. This year, as the pandemic continues to disrupt educational efforts and students and families across the nation, the Gonzales Youth Council partnered with the city and Cal State University Monterey Bay to develop and conduct a mental health and social-emotional well-being survey, led by young people for young people. The results of the survey identified the need for more mental health supports and resources—including help to address challenges related to COVID-19—to which the City of Gonzales and the Gonzales Unified School District swiftly responded by co-funding a school-based licensed clinical social worker.

Another fruit of Gonzales’ labor in working with diverse leaders across sectors is providing internet access for all. A public-private partnership made this possible pre-pandemic. By initiating efforts to address the digital divide in years past, Gonzales was better positioned to address the long-term impacts of COVID-19 and the related economic recession. Not to mention, with the new school year upon us, digital access will be an educational lifeline for so many young people. Before the pandemic, and now during the crisis response, Gonzales continues to improve the local economy by fostering growth that is equitable, sustainable, and inclusive.

2. Standing Up Community-Wide Responses.

Prize-winning communities stand out for how they work collectively to take on challenges that require bold solutions and strategies that reach beyond what any one organization or entity could do.

For example, during the height of the pandemic in Chelsea, Mass., this spring, this small city of 1.8 square miles quickly organized to systematically put in place 15 pop-up food pantries.

In short order, community partners also launched the One Chelsea Fund to provide financial relief to meet people’s basic needs. It was not at all surprising to learn what community-based organizations were behind the creation of the Fund—the same ones that partnered to support their Prize application more than three years ago: The Chelsea Collaborative, GreenRoots, and The Neighborhood Developers.

3. Ensuring Access to Essential Resources for All.

One thing COVID-19 has not changed is the Prize-winning commitment to health and equity. In fact, leaders are doubling down. Past winners are working harder than ever to ensure everyone has access to housing, health services, childcare, food, jobs, safe spaces for returning citizens from prison or jail, and so much more.

For example, in many places with families with different citizenship or immigration statuses, consideration is given to utilizing resources based on the needs of the recipients—many of whom live in crowded housing, have little access to health care, and have no choice but to keep working. One such community is the rural Columbia Gorge Region on the border between Washington and Oregon. With a large population of migrant and seasonal farmworkers who have limited access to websites and social media, the Columbia Gorge Region is keeping these residents updated during the pandemic via a channel they know will reach them: the local Spanish-language station Radio Tierra. Their outreach is a strong example of how Prize communities are intentional about meeting residents “where they are” to ensure they have the information and services they need.

Staying Connected Through Community Networks

Prize leaders continually tap networks and build community. They boost morale and inspire other leaders. They innovate to meet local priorities. And through the network of Prize-winning communities, they model reciprocity and the importance of real-time learning and sharing. As Gonzales City Manager René L. Mendez said recently on their stepped-up engagement of residents, “During COVID we are all doing things that are actually really good. We should find ways to continue them after COVID is done.”

These stories and examples help us envision what it looks like to begin to build a lasting Culture of Health. The annual Prize selection process is how we learn about communities that stand out, and in return, we share winners’ stories widely to inspire other places. And don’t we all need more positive stories of communities coming together right now?

About the Author


Carrie Lee Carroll

Carrie Lee Carroll is the Acting Director of the RWJF Culture of Health Prize at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. Carrie possesses more than 20 years of experience in philanthropy with an emphasis on the social determinants of health, or the places where people live, learn, work, and play.