As I sat on the table, slumped to one side, it was finally clear I was in trouble. Years of inattention, especially the last two years, had finally caught up with me. All the bad food choices, all the missed doctor’s appointments, all the time spent ignoring family history and data had come home to roost. At that moment, my selfishness became clear. What would my family do without me? Maybe worse, what would their lives be like taking care of an invalid?
The stroke reminded me that what I was eating, how often I exercised, and how I treated myself wasn’t just for me. It was for my family. So I changed permanently! The idea was no matter how good I felt, I still had to do the things that would maintain that level of health.
My job at the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF) is to support communities where residents have decided to take care of, invest in, and develop a more robust vision for the future health of the place they call home. Many of those communities are where I was two years ago, sitting on metaphorical exam tables, slumped over to one side, wondering whether they will survive another day. The fact they have a lot going for them does not negate the reality that they are not healthy.
It seems that the prescription for them is the same. Intensely treat the underlying causes and don’t quit when things start looking better. Accept that it’s okay to direct attention to the wellbeing of JUST your community because there is a ripple effect that will positively affect others. Just like I have a family that depends on me to be at my best, communities have multiple families that are depending on them for the same.
Over the last five years, WRF has recognized the importance of building the capacity of key intermediaries that organize, engage, and mobilize Arkansas residents in support of local community change. The Foundation has made multi-year, mission-critical investments in the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Rural Community Alliance, and Arkansas United Community Coalition to build organizational capacity and leverage philanthropic resources. The Foundation believes intermediaries with long-term relationships in communities are the best way to facilitate a local change process. The Foundation’s place-based investments have established critical infrastructure in the state to organize residents, influence local decisions and plans, re-prioritize allocation of resources, and unite stakeholders to create locally developed agendas.
Downtown Jonesboro, Arkansas
For example, nearly a decade ago, WRF partnered with the City of Jonesboro to create the North Jonesboro Neighborhood Initiative (NJNI). NJNI has continued to be a resident-driven process to generate long-term systemic change. It began with an openness to redistribute Community Development Block Grant funds. NJNI has gone on to engage North Jonesboro residents, business owners, the faith-based community, and others to make progress towards a common agenda. WRF has provided ongoing consultant support since 2009 and two small grants, but, most importantly, the health of the North Jonesboro community has improved.
More recently, the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce launched IMPACT Independence County (IMPACT), a community-based strategic planning process that engaged more than 1,200 residents to develop a plan to improve economic prosperity and educational outcomes in the greater Batesville region. WRF provided early implementation funding and technical assistance to ensure the community created an inclusive and sustainable local movement. Many Independence County residents could tell you there has been a noticeable difference in how folks have felt about their region.
It is not a stretch to think about the economic, social, and educational health of our communities in the same way we think about our individual health. If you neglect your body, you get sick. If we neglect our communities, they decline. Conversely, when you pay attention, directly address root causes, and follow a consistent treatment – follow plans created and driven by residents to increase educational, economic, community change, and improve community health – you can guarantee better days are ahead for everyone.