By Anne-Marie Braga, MSSW, LCSW
Population and Community Health Manager
Children, Youth and Families Branch
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
I’m not going to lie: Community engagement is tough. It can be inconvenient and uncomfortable at times – especially when engaging a new community that is very different than your own. However, community engagement is necessary to improve the health and well-being of maternal and child health (MCH) populations. And here in Colorado, we have seen the benefits time and time again. This is why our Title V MCH program has formally adopted community engagement as a core, fundamental principle that is woven into each of our state priority needs. Engaging the community creates the dedicated space and time for all of us to ensure that the communities most affected by our MCH work are effectively engaged.
Many strategies and systems have been put in place to ensure meaningful, effective community engagement. Colorado’s MCH program continues to invest in the Family Leadership Training Institute to ensure that family leaders – and to some extent youth leaders – are trained and ready to partner with community and state leaders to improve the health and well-being of the MCH population. To ensure these family leaders can identify and take advantage of opportunities to lend their expertise, Colorado created the Family Leadership Registry
, developed under the leadership of our Family and Community Engagement Specialist and current AMCHP president, Eileen Forlenza. This online system, modeled after LinkedIn, matches trained family leaders with opportunities on various boards and projects at the state and local levels. All members of the Family Leadership Training Institute are given a basic profile in the registry, which is enhanced when the family leaders add their areas of interest from a list of MCH priority areas and topics that were identified by the family leaders themselves. In addition, organizational partners are invited to submit leadership opportunities for family leaders, allowing those leaders to be matched to appropriate opportunities, assuring the family/community perspective is embedded in the work of participating organizations.
In 2015, the MCH program funded a comprehensive study to determine current practices and barriers regarding family engagement within state agencies. As a result of this study, Forlenza created (and continues to lead) Colorado’s Interagency Family Engagement Coalition. This group is composed of family leaders and state agencies who work together to change policies and practices across government entities; for example, developing community engagement policies for state agencies requiring them to set expectations and processes to effectively engage the communities they serve.
Our youth and young adult team has effectively hired and integrated youth into the workplace to serve as content experts in youth and young adult culture. This team also serves as a mechanism for capturing the needs, insights and interests of young people statewide. Institutionalizing the practice of hiring youth in term-limited positions ensures that programs, practices and policies that are meaningful and relevant to youth and young adults across the state are in place to affect health outcomes. This youth advisor model is being replicated by local public health agencies, community organizations and other state agencies. As a result of the expansion of the model, two learning communities, one for youth advisors and another for their adult supervisors, have been established. The youth advisor model supports youth employees in growing their ability to lead and provides opportunities for adult employees to enhance their skills as mentors and address issues in creative ways.
In addition to the youth advisor model, our MCH program continues to support the Youth Partnership for Health
(YPH), our department’s youth advisory board. This group of diverse youth and young adults provides guidance and feedback to programs and initiatives seeking to improve youth health and well-being. YPH has been meeting since 2000, and its results include a variety of policy and practice changes that affect programs addressing positive youth development, such as substance use, safe driving, sexual health, bullying, mental health and suicide. Finally, another strategy we identified as necessary to increase effective community engagement is providing one-on-one coaching opportunities for Colorado MCH program staff. Over the past several years, we conducted learning communities to provide space for groups of staff members to learn about the importance of community engagement. MCH staff are encouraged to ask questions of coaches such as: Where do you find community members? How do you get community members to come to your meeting? Do I have to pay community members? What if they don’t come back? This was a great start to get the conversation going, but to keep it going we identified experienced staff to serve as MCH coaches. They are responsible for reaching out to and providing specific coaching for each MCH priority team lead. This ensures that staff get what they need in order to effectively engage the communities most in need. While this approach is new, we have already received positive feedback from the staff.