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Grassroots Movements and Public Health

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

*This article is part one of a two-part series on grassroots movements and public health.*

By Laree Kiely

public healthRecently, a small group of citizens in a rural California town decided to take on their community’s health issues. When all of the public health information was assembled and published, these citizens realized that their local statistics on diabetes, heart disease and obesity were terribly high. Their town was seriously unhealthy!

These people were not a formal agency, just a group of citizens. They had come together from all walks of life: local business owners, proprietors of local health food restaurants and grocery stores, hospital workers, city government, parks and recreation, law enforcement, event planners, local First-Five staff, and public health officials. One was the conservative owner of a large international business. The movement had started with just a handful of people who knew each other and then these few brought in others with them who had necessary skills and resources. They came together unofficially, but they brought their expertise and just showed up as concerned citizens who loved their community.

They decided first on one over-arching, noble goal: to help the citizens of their town become healthier by raising their awareness of elements of healthy living. They thought this to be a first step toward living better and reducing the incidents of chronic health issues in the community.

They received a small grant and decided to use it for a community “fun run” that focused on awareness of health and healthy behaviors. It was a raging, continuing success. (As an aside the only trouble they ran into as a team was when the person in charge of refreshments purchased donuts, but they soon forgave that and laughed at the irony).

Now if you’re thinking about changing the world, this example of community action may seem like a baby step. But it was certainly a step in a positive direction, better than standing still, and we should not doubt that such community movements can actually change the world. Today we are seeing these grass-root movements all over the country. We call them “Communities of Promise.” The term combines both definitions of the word: promise meaning potential and promise meaning commitment.

So here is a great opportunity. Where public health officials can encourage the actual people they serve to drive and to be part of the solution, these officials can function as resources, sometimes even unofficial hubs, for community wellness. The result is better buy-in from all factions in the community–including those who don’t like government intervention. In this way, public health staff can become participants in organic movements, rather than the drivers. This model builds more stable relationships across towns and helps people help themselves and others.

This is not always easy because a group’s interest and motivation alone are not enough. Some of these elements are “necessary, but not sufficient”; you gotta’ have them but they’re not the whole story. There are additional elements that are crucial for success. Without them, well-intentioned efforts can end up very badly–propelling us backwards rather than forward. The first of these: it takes a small handful of people who want to make an inclusive and positive difference in their neighborhood. This should be a group with diverse opinions and frames of reference. We often miss this element because it is easier to surround ourselves with kindred souls–we call them VAPs–very agreeable people.

Bringing only VAP’s together does not get the diverse perspectives necessary and, whereas our goal for coming together has to be the same, the reasons behind it do not have to agree. Some people will want wellness for economic reasons, others for personal reasons, others yet for altruistic concerns, some perhaps because it is their field of expertise. Again, our reasons (or even values) do not have to agree. We can agree that we want the same ultimate outcome. In the case of our example, the participants had many different reasons for being there but their shared goal was better health in the community. Trying to force our ideologies on each other just gets us into trouble and distracts us from this fact: there is always common ground to be discovered. I want to say this again: we don’t have to agree on the “why,” just the “what” and the “how.”   

Next month, we will discuss the tools and skills necessary to organize citizens in addressing public health issues.  



Author: Laree Kiely, Ph.D., President, the Kiely Group.  Dr Kiely served on the faculty at USC for over 15 years. In addition to currently leading the Kiely Group, she serves as faculty for leadership programs at Duke CE, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird, and Ivey (Toronto). The Kiely Group specializes in Leadership and Organizational Impact. Please send your comments, questions, and stories to us at:  [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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