Changes to funding streams, infrastructure, and increased resources are recommended to improve Richmond-area community health and wellbeing, according to the latest collaboration between the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center on Society and Health (CSH), Engaging Richmond, and the VCU Center for Urban and Regional Analysis (CURA). The researchers recently published a report, “Regional Scan and Strategies for Community Engagement in Health, Housing, and Community Development,” which was funded by Richmond Memorial Health Foundation (RMHF) on the recommendation of the Invest Health RVA team.
The researchers were selected as part of Invest Health RVA, an initiative launched by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Reinvestment Fund to promote cross-sector collaborations aimed at removing barriers to health in low-wealth neighborhoods. Richmond, once the second largest slave trading port in the country, is still working to overcome historical barriers that disproportionately leave many African-Americans in areas of concentrated poverty. The persistent residential segregation seen here has extreme consequences to health: babies born five miles apart—one in the impoverished, predominantly African American neighborhood of Gilpin and one in the wealthy, predominantly white Westover Hills neighborhood—have as much as a twenty-year difference in life-expectancy.
To overcome these barriers to health, the members of Invest Health RVA recognizes that meaningfully engaging community members can lead to more direct and innovative solutions to equity issues. Community members, as those living the conditions organizations are targeting with interventions, have the lived experience and perspective to co-create, lead and inform effective and culturally appropriate interventions. Elevating community voice is essential to recognizing and harnessing the power and knowledge of community members, while benefiting organizations’ efforts.
The research team (including Engaging Richmond and VCU’s CSH and CURA) was uniquely suited for this work. Recognizing a need to give priority to the community voice for a community needs assessment, CSH convened Engaging Richmond in 2011 and has continued the program ever since. This community-university partnership is primarily comprised of residents who live and work in communities with high concentrations of poverty in the City of Richmond, as well as CSH researchers. Team members work as co-equal partners on mixed-methods projects, and performed much of the data collection and analysis for the Richmond-area scan detailed in the recently published report.
The report describes community engagement challenges and strategies in local non-profits and coalitions in the City of Richmond and the Counties of Chesterfield and Henrico. It includes themes from interviews and case studies, as well as an inventory of community-engaged organizations, an annotated bibliography of literature on community engagement strategies, and maps that overlay housing data and community-engaged organizations in the Richmond region.
The report also highlighted themes that are important considerations in engaging communities, such as outreach, capacity building, and evaluation, and provided recommendations for how to improve community engagement work in the Richmond area.
The report is intended to support local organizations such as Embrace Richmond, of which Wendy McCaig is executive director. McCaig pointed to the importance of focusing on leveraging community assets, but the difficulty of doing so given traditional funding streams, stating “investment in the internal capacity of a community takes far longer than a one-year grant cycle allows.”
Project Principle Investigator Emily Zimmerman, Ph.D., echoed McCaig’s comments on capacity building: “There are so many opportunities for local coalitions to be resident-led and to address issues of equity and other community priorities.” Zimmerman also highlighted the need for more resources “to engage residents and communities in meaningful ways.”
Recommendations within the report call for more flexible funding models and increased support for capacity building opportunities, among others.
The researchers also found:
• Most organizations and initiatives require greater infrastructure and resources to consistently involve stakeholders.
• Equity in health, housing, and community development in the Richmond region can benefit from more multi-sector and regional collaborations.
• There are many opportunities for growth in improving infrastructure and funding, capacity building of potential resident leaders, evaluating efforts, and utilizing existing community and resident assets during engagement efforts.
About the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center on Society and Health
The VCU Center on Society and Health is an academic research center that studies the health implications of social factors—such as education, income, neighborhood and community environmental conditions, and public policy. This and other Center work can be found at societyhealth.vcu.edu. Follow the Center on Twitter, @VCUSocHealth.
About the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis at Virginia Commonwealth University (CURA at VCU)
CURA at VCU is the economic and policy research center of L. Douglas Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. The Center serves state agencies, regional and metropolitan organizations, planning districts, cities, local governments, and businesses and non-profit organizations by providing information systems support, program impact analysis, public policy evaluation, targeted investment models, and strategic plans. Further information about CURA’s works can be found at http://www.cura.vcu.edu/