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Dr. Rose Gowen: Affecting Large-Scale Change Through Public Service

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Intersector Project
March 17, 2015

DrRoseGowenIn 2001, shortly after the University of Texas School of Public Health in Brownsville (UTSPH) began comprehensive clinical research to identify health risks in the surrounding community, it looked to engage powerful community members in promoting change. One of its first great champions was Dr. Rose Zavaletta Gowen, a local obstetrician gynecologist, who was brought on board to inform clinicians and encourage them to get involved.

After agreeing that action needed to be taken to combat the community’s 80 percent obese / overweight rate, 33 percent diabetic rate and 70 percent uninsured rate, a team from the UTSPH, the City’s health department, a local community health clinic Su Clinica and Dr. Gowen organized and designed a farmers market. Their goal was to make fresh fruits and vegetables accessible and affordable to every income level in the city. The farmers market was only the first step is a series of wellness initiatives that ultimately were awarded the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation prize for a “Culture of Health.”

Working on the farmers market, which opened to great success in 2006, Gowen became aware of how city administration and elected officials could either enable or hinder projects. Her understanding of the scope of the health problem, her view of the opportunities for local government to affect real change and her insight into how these health challenges affected the economy led her to consider a run for city commissioner.

Gowen had practiced medicine in the private sector for more 20 years, but realized that it was the public sector that offered her the best chance to affect large-scale community change. For Gowen, the scale of the problem identified by UTSPH demonstrated the limitations of a patient-by-patient approach to changing community behavior and indicated a need for widespread community action on more than one level. As she became engaged with the programs such as the Brownsville farmers market and its subsequent effects on the community, she was compelled to work on the issues on a larger scale.

Dr. Gowen was elected in 2009 to the city commission and re-elected in 2013. She has brought a cross-sector, multi-stakeholder approach to her work. Her experience as chair of the farmers market gave her access to each sector and allowed her to understand their differing needs and objectives. In planning the market, Gowen, UTSPH and the Brownsville farmers market team researched what consumers and farmers would look for to participate and what location would optimize patronage from all income levels. Gowen and the team recognized the importance of engaging sectors from their own perspectives, whether it is farmers or city officials.

While on the City Commission, Gowen and Health Department Director Art Rodriguez reached out to non-health departments and non-health related businesses by employing this multi-stakeholder strategy. It was essential to speak to leaders about how being unhealthy impacted those departments’ and business’ goals and priorities. Learning to speak about health in economic terms, educational terms and environmental terms was critical.

For example, when speaking with the Finance Department, Gowen and Rodriguez focused on the financial implications of unhealthy choices including the increasing cost to the health care system and the toll on the local economy as workers become disabled due to health complications. Together, they worked with the UTSPH team to show how being an unhealthy community affected society at large and began teaching how wellness initiatives and a healthier community would strengthen connected objectives in education and economics. When speaking the right language, they found greater understanding and “buy in.”

With the leadership of Gowen and the UTSPH community advisory board, “health” in Brownsville has been elevated to a citywide issue. Individuals and groups have come together to build a strong network to support initiatives and ordinances for healthy living. The farmers market was followed by an integrated network of initiatives including:

  • The Challenge, an annual weight loss event.
  • CycloBia, an open streets program.
  • Policy changes including a sidewalk ordinance, a safe passing ordinance, a complete streets resolution and smoking ban ordinance.
  • A master bike and hike plan aimed at providing a trail within one-half mile of every residence in the city. 

In a city where people believed “healthy” only meant going to the doctor and taking medicine, creating an understanding of health as a lifestyle through active programs, modifications to the city’s landscape and the growth of a community board of over 200 people, has been a significant change for the community.

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One Response to Dr. Rose Gowen: Affecting Large-Scale Change Through Public Service

  1. Robert Brescia Reply

    March 20, 2015 at 7:26 am

    Rose has taken Brownsville through a heightened state of awareness about diabetes to community action that has had a great deal of impact. If action is the strongest component of leadership, then the “Rose of Brownsville” is truly a great leader. She is a visible, consistent, and powerful exemplar of public service.

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