In 2011, Samueli Institute embarked on a multi-year project to foster health and wellness in three distinct communities across the country, one in Detroit, another in New Orleans, and a third in the Mississippi delta. The Well Community Project, as the effort is now known, held as its core premise a belief that the communities were the experts and needed to take the lead in developing their blueprint to becoming a healthier community.
Earlier this year, Samueli Institute hosted representatives of the participating communities along with other successful community health organizations and paired them with national funders, policy makers and thought leaders in public health. The purpose of the meeting was not just to generate field reports from the individual communities to operatives of national programs, but instead foster deep discussion among equals for the betterment of all.
Tyler Norris, vice president of Total Health Partnerships at Kaiser Permanente was one of the final speakers of the day and summed up the spirit of the meeting and of the Well Community Project precisely as he delivered a short 15 minute address to the group. Continue reading “A Kind of Unnoticed Excellence” »
When Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf region in August 2005 it took more than 1,800 lives and caused more than 1.2 billion dollars in damage to communities along the coast. Among the hardest hit was the city of New Orleans, which suffered through the battering of the storm followed by massive flooding when the city’s levee system failed.
The community of New Orleans East, a very large section of the city situated east of the Industrial Canal, north of the Mississippi River and south of Lake Pontchartrain, was hit hard by the storm and struggles to recover from its impact to this day.
Samueli Institute’s Well Community Project teamed with local non-profit organization, the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies (IWES), in New Orleans East to help residents recognize the effect Katrina was having on their lives almost ten years later, and through that understanding begin to heal. IWES hosted Wisdom Circles to help neighbors connect with each other and themselves.
Denese Shervington, MD, MPH, president & ceo of IWES
“Wisdom circles have been around for a long time. They are a very ancient technique that indigenous people throughout the planet have used to bring a community together to tell stories again and to learn from each other,” explains Denese Shervington, MD, MPH, president & ceo of IWES. “What’s slightly different in Wisdom Circles opposed to the public health focus group is that we create rituals to help people tap into a more sacred space. We are really going for truth telling and not advice giving. People just want to be heard and that in itself can be healing.”
For more than a year, Shervington’s team hosted monthly circles of 20-25 individuals from across the community and encouraged them to tell some of the stories that have been painful in their lives, or to share celebratory stories of overcoming adversity. Through this process, IWES has helped residents of New Orleans East begin to come to terms with how the storm is still affecting their lives.
IWES’ efforts are having an impact.
“People frequently approach me in the neighborhood and say their lives have changed since participating in one of our sessions,” says Dr. Shervington.
They tell her they are interacting differently with their children, and are starting to realize that perhaps their children are acting out as a result of struggling with their own experience from the storm.
“They just never thought that this terrible thing that happened had a significant impact on their being and their lives.”
In most Western cultures, illness or injury is a very individual experience. Doctors fix the body, provide medication, and refer to counselors as needed. Those who are not sick go on with life as usual.
However, many traditional cultures have a different view of illness: a shared view that shifts the responsibility to the community at large.
These two fundamentally different ways of seeing the nature of human beings is manifested in how we help, or do not help, those who are sick or injured. One approach holds an assumption that outside help will be provided to those in need from those who have resources and no need. The other assumption is that there will be collective action in which all engage in finding a community solution.
Can these opposing views of illness shed light on how to resolve issues and heal trauma within communities?
The neighborhood of Springwells Village is a rarity in Detroit: a densely-packed community in a city known for declining population and sprawl. The vibrancy of the 1.3 square mile area of Springwells Village comes largely from an influx of growing families.
More than 35 percent of the 17,000 residents are under the age of 18.
“There’s nothing for the children to do,” explains Program Manager Tiffany Tononi of Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI), a group that concentrates its efforts in Springwells Village’s square mile. “That was one of the biggest bits of feedback we heard from the community when we started.”
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. Continue reading “And Now: Community Wellness” »