By Eileen Forlenza
President of the Board of Directors, AMCHP
Families of children who have been marginalized have a rich history in our country of changing the conversation in many fields. Civic engagement is the bedrock of our democracy and the cornerstone of our Constitution. But while community engagement is not novel, what is new is the emergence of community engagement as a public health priority. The shared interests and priorities of community and health leaders present an opportunity to partner and put the "public" back into public health.
Communities are developing innovative solutions to assure the health, safety and well-being of their members because they have unique insight regarding their resources, politics, history, culture, power and authority. Community members are dedicated to finding solutions because they are inextricably connected to the outcome. It's not a job or an assignment; it's their life. Like a baby swaddled by a blanket, the community's experience and deep culture are to be honored while being protected.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Essential Services of Public Health guidelines provide the framework for effective community engagement. Essential Service No. 4 states that public health systems should "mobilize community partnerships to identify and solve health problems." Of all the essential services of public health, this is the only one that specifically calls out partnership; it guides us to build trust and cultural respect.
Indeed, the public health workforce can and should be partners in these conversations. For years, public health leaders have been talking about the value of embedding the voice of the community in programmatic design, implementation and evaluation. I have had the privilege of working in Colorado and across the country to support public health teams in their community engagement activities. Going from value to action requires several steps toward readiness. I encourage you to consider the following:
- We must shift from servicing the community to partnering with the community.
- Our budget is our policy statement.
- We must take time to understand and honor culture; it is the heartbeat of all communities.
- The community experience is the horizontal thread across vertical systems.
- Lived experience held by individuals is a valuable credential and should be honored.
- Community engagement leads to health equity.
Communities know what they need – the answers are in the people. It is our job as public health professionals to be invited to the conversation as partners. Careful consideration must be made to build trust with the community, so that we are not sidetracked by the call of our ego to "fix the problem" but rather to solve challenges together.
As you might know, I came to the public health workforce as a community leader, advocating on behalf of families who have children with special health care needs. Throughout my public health career, I have been awe-struck by the dedication of my colleagues who care deeply about population health and are committed to women, children and youth. I have seen over and over again how the MCH workforce "gets it" when it comes to community engagement, and so I thank you for your tireless efforts. I am excited to see how much further we can go as new resources become available and members of the community join us in our work!
In light of the upcoming national election, community engagement is ultimately about democracy. I'll leave you with the words of President Abraham Lincoln: "… and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Let's link arms and cross the bridge together.