We Can Only Achieve Health Equity through Collaboration at All Levels

By Bob Atkins and Diane Hagerman

Collaboration among organizations with diverse missions, goals and constituents is one of the most important ways we can overcome the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic and continue our work to build a Culture of Health in New Jersey, where everyone has a fair and just opportunity to live the healthiest life possible.

That view was reinforced for us when our 20 New Jersey Health Initiatives (NJHI) Communities Moving to Action and Upstream Action Acceleration grantees recently met to discuss lessons learned by working across sectors with community residents, educators, law enforcement, elected officials, community-based non-profits and many others toward the common aim of overcoming social, economic and environmental barriers to good health in their respective communities. 

As an example, we heard how the Middle Township Police Department works with school districts in Cape May County to lessen the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) through the “Handle with Care” program — a partnership where police notify schools when children have witnessed a traumatic event.  Since the inception of this work, 90% of Cape May County educators have learned about the effects of ACEs and participated in resiliency training alongside law enforcement officers, recreation program directors and youth coaches.

Ninety percent of Cape May County educators have learned about the effects of adverse childhood experiences and participated in resiliency training alongside law enforcement officers, recreation program directors and youth coaches.
Community input informed the development of the Camden Conservation Blueprint.

In Camden, the Camden Conservation Blueprint, created by New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Rowan University and the Nature Conservancy, helps residents find parks and playgrounds, the locations of farmers’ markets and food pantries where they can get fresh foods and more. Developed with the help, direction and input of the community, the Blueprint uses data that previously might have been inaccessible to help people find resources and advocate for policy, systems and environmental changes needed to improve health for all.

Underlying everything we do at NJHI is our conviction that it is impossible to achieve equity without finding new ways to support communities of greatest need and bolster local capacity to address complex health problems. Only by strengthening communities’ and residents’ networks, bolstering knowledge and improving tools and access to them, can those communities be equipped to address the “upstream” factors that influence health such as economic opportunities, access to quality education and biases related to race/ethnicity.

The communities that NJHI grantees serve are among the most strained and hardest hit by a pandemic that has magnified the systemic racism and other inequities that shorten life spans and rob people of opportunity. Whether in the form of inadequate housing and schools, behavioral health distress, or the inability to regularly get nutritious food, these communities face far more problems than do others. As Dr. Rich Besser, President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, so accurately put it: “Even when structural failures could imperil every American, the greatest strains will fall on certain demographics because of their economic, social or health status.”

When we started thinking about the work that led to these two- and four-year grants, we never could have imagined where our world would be today. But we also couldn’t imagine how effectively and quickly the coalitions we support and nurture would go about meeting these unprecedented needs. By working closely with their community partners, our grantees shifted the focus of their grant-funded projects to meet the health, economic and social challenges of COVID-19. Since March, they and their partners have distributed meals to hungry seniors and families, provided direct assistance to help New Jerseyans with basic household expenses and connected students and families with resources for remote learning, transportation and more.

Every day, our grantees reaffirm NJHI’s belief in the power of partnerships.

The financial support that NJHI provides is only part of the reason our grantees accomplish so much. They also see the value in bringing many different voices and sectors to the same table to ask each other, “What can we do — together — with and for our communities?” We practice philanthropy that involves partnering with communities to identify local priorities, developing initiatives that use existing assets to address those challenges and then investing in those efforts.

Getting everyone at the table and having them share assets, build trust and move in the same direction is at the center of what we can do to support our communities in addressing their needs.

With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other funders in the state, we are committed to building more resilient and equitable communities. In the process, we’ve learned that the biggest value we can bring to our grantees and their communities is building and strengthening networks and having ongoing collaborative discussions to address the issues of equity that hold back too many New Jerseyans. As our state and nation look to come together to bridge an intolerable divide, we can’t help but feel optimistic that collaboration will prove to be crucial to achieving that goal.

As we look to a brighter future, let’s all grab a seat at the table.