And Now: Community Wellness

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In 2013 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) documented what many in the healthy communities movement had known for a long time. That the health and prosperity of the nation was declining. What was remarkable and new in this study, however, was that these declines were occurring not just in a few areas of the country, or exclusively in poor or underserved areas, but across the entire nation – across multiple demographics and income levels. In addition, the study documented that this was not a recent phenomenon but, in fact, the health of the United States has been declining for more than 30 years.

Our lives, the report said, were getting shorter and our health was getting worse. As the experts dug deeper into the data to try to determine what caused this marked decline, they discovered that the United States was investing more than twice as much in medical treatment for diseases compared to preventing them than any other country in the world. The disproportionate spending on disease care was done at the expense of investments in community development and social services that were the underlying causes of the very diseases our medical system was trying to treat. This mismatch is at the heart of our problems, both social and economic.

About the same time as the release of the IOM report, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation decided to fund a unique program to foster community wellbeing. The program aimed to go beyond public health and medical care to look at how community wellbeing is fostered and cultivated. They funded Samueli Institute, a leader and whole systems, whole person wellbeing research, to help organize an approach that could look this process.

Samueli Institute began by convening stakeholders from communities as well as activists, academics and policymakers to probe the process fostering wellbeing. The working group adapted a framework built for the military called Total Force Fitness to this effort.

But what we learned in that initial meeting was that frameworks were not the core need nor at the heart of the process. Indeed, many frameworks had been developed and more left out some of the most important social and historical causes of illness or wellbeing. What was needed was a much more basic model of human flourishing. Even more important than any model was fostering a process in which the strengths of a community were tapped and a deep dialogue was created across all stakeholders. Once this process was developed the communities began to create their own wellbeing.


Deep and diverse social dialogue was like water on a garden from which a thousand flowers bloomed.


Samueli Institute worked with three communities from around the country, drawn from locations with some of the worst health metrics. Each was offered an opportunity to get assistance in a community wellbeing improvement project of their choice. In addition, we gathered a Council of Elders of experienced community leaders to help facilitate this process. The results of this process were showcased and discussed among the participants and with policymakers and funders at The Well Community Summit on April 9-10, 2015.

The dialogue and process at the Summit was unique in many ways. The event included interactive theater, gaming, storytelling and a facilitated dialogue to reveal the lessons these communities have learned that are essential for healing our nation as a whole and reversing the trends documented in the IOM report.

The results of this remarkable Summit will be subject of a subsequent blogs, so watch these pages. In the meantime, I urge readers to read and watch the products of this work so far.  

The time has come to go beyond medical care, beyond public health and beyond traditional approaches to disease screening and prevention. It is time to cultivate the roots of human flourishing. It is time to create community wellbeing for everyone in our nation.