Before I start, I want to give a brief background to provide the context for my remarks. This past spring, my inner activist was reawakened, as I finally took a course in my graduate program entitled Community Nutrition. In this course, we would explore community work and the different influencers that promote or impede the progress toward healthful, sustainable systems of behavior change in the diverse communities of New York City.
A current point of discussion in the world of health equities recognizes current gaps in access to healthy, affordable food and safe, sustainable areas for physical activity participation; and the complex systems that afford these disparities are often understood using the Social Ecological Model, shown below.
This model serves to contextualize all of the individual, peer, organizational, community, and policy factors that contribute to one’s social behaviors, and it exposes the true complexity of the current system that all of us are functioning within.
Throughout the scope of this work, and similar to other areas of social justice, systematic flaws arise, namely class, socioeconomic status, and racial disparities that underpin the ever-present yet under-prioritized flaws within the system. With that, I have compiled some points to consider when approaching health equity work.
1. Inclusion is a Mediator, Not an Outcome
Many social justice advocates strive for inclusion, which sounds appealing, since by definition, it means:
“the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.”
However, by definition, it is clear that these structures in which individuals are being included, are only going to continue to fail them.
As a result, the focus needs to be on improving structural issues (i.e., policy, community, etc.) factors and not on simply including underserved individuals in a system to which they will continue to be failed. Therefore, inclusion is only effective when the system is worth being included in.1
2. If You are Not a Member of a Community, Then Listen First
This is a key point, and it echoes the eloquent statements by Faithlynn Morris in the section of her previous post, particularly in the shut up. section.
This is where so many well-meaning activists fall short. It is not enough to walk into a community with goals and a plan, disregarding the desires and needs of the members of that community. After all, the capable members of that community are going to be more successful in achieving healthful behavior change when they have taken ownership of these changes and are confident in their ability to sustain these changes within their community itself.
Common concerns in this movement are education, access, economic equity, and focus on health. Therefore, if these cornerstones are to be achieved, a needs assessment must be conducted, including the community members in this process.2
Remember, the definition of community organizing is:
“the coordination of cooperative efforts and campaigning carried out by local residents to promote the interests of their community.”
So, by definition, it is not your job, as an ally to come in and make all the decisions.
3. Think Critically and Cautiously When Beginning Community Work
The best thing you can do as an individual is question the decisions being made when you move into a new role. As yourself, “why are the decisions made how they are?” “Who has agency in making these decisions?” “How do these decisions benefit or interrupt the lives of community members?” “What can I do to improve the system in which we are working?”
For some great information, look to an article by Mike Miller for Dissent Magazine in 2010, entitled Alinsky for the Left: The Politics of Community Organizing.
Remember, in all this work, practice and promote resiliency and genuine support for one another. This work is never easy, and if done sustainably, it will not be quick either.
I would like to close with a quote from the brilliant Lila Watson, when she states:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
So, let’s get out there, work together, and combat this broken system that is failing so many groups of people on a regular basis. After all, this world belongs to ALL of us.
- Kepkiewicz L, Chrobok M, Whetung M, et al. Beyond inclusion: Toward an anti-colonial food justice praxis. J Agric Food Syst Community Dev. 2015;5(4):99-104.
- Travers K. Reducing inequities through participatory research and community empowerment. Health Educ Behav. 1997;24(3):344-356.
Peter Adintori (he/him/himself) is a UConn Alum with a B.S. in Exercise Science, and is currently pursuing an M.S. in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. He worked alongside Austin, Geena, and Scarlett as an RASJE, while also exploring student leadership education and sexual violence education. In his career, Peter plans to promote prevention-based healthcare, focusing on inclusivity of all demographic groups through improvements in education and policy. First, he plans to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and Certified Exercise Physiologist (ACSM EP-C) on his way to medical school, where he will pursue a joint MD/PhD education.