The First Year Of The Health Equity And Prosperity Project

by Jonathan C. Peck, President & Sr. Futurist

In January of 2015, IAF began a multi-sector project for health equity and prosperity with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and in partnership with a remarkable group of organizations. We sought to foster a better conversation about our shared futures than the political campaigns would offer last year, while expanding the number of people committed to health equity. This conversation became a structured process of personal storytelling and dialogue leading to shared vision and action agendas. We have engaged hundreds of people from diverse backgrounds in this process over the past year and reached out to three million people using social media. What we did in 2016 feels important but unfinished.

We began with our partners: the Samueli Institute, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s 100 Million Healthier Lives, Healthy Companies International, National Collaborative for Health Equity, AcademyHealth, Prevention Institute, Community Initiatives, Stanford Center for Population Health Sciences, University of Maryland Center for Health Equity, and the Health Advocates in Reach and Research. This large partnership combined the perspectives of non-profit and business organizations while offering a very large network of people to be engaged in the conversation on vision and action for health equity and prosperity.

These terms—health equity and prosperity—hold such diverse meanings and connotations for people that they are beautifully suited to dialogue. The statement arising from the dialogue at the first Partners Meeting was:

“Health equity makes everyone part of bringing health to others. Every neighborhood, every business, every leader can bring the opportunity for all to prosper on a common path to freedom and justice. We strive on this path for a moral prosperity that constantly measures whose life is getting better. This is the prosperity that weaves through the American fabric and gathers wealth for the benefit of us all. We share a fate. We are connected. We ground ourselves in shared experience to bring health equity and prosperity that can reach generations to come while we dream of people coming together across races, social divides and economic classes to thrive.”

This is a fine vision, but Soma Stout, M.D., who leads 100 Million Healthier Lives emphasized that rather than take such a vision to people we should take the process so that they can find and express their own visions. Thus when we convened dozens of CEOs from the private and non-profit sectors last May at the historic Lincoln Cottage in Washington, D.C., we began with stories rather than vision. We also assured a diversity of stories by including people whose lived experience with inequity grounded the views of executives from powerful organizations. (The power of this diversity was beautifully written about in a blog post from Paul Terry, CEO of HERO Health.) By starting with poignant stories that spoke to the human costs of institutional policies going back decades, the subsequent dialogue ran deeper into meaningful experience that touched people and motivated authentic sharing of views. We next moved to vision and more importantly into identifying and prioritizing the action areas that would organize our efforts after the Lincoln Cottage Assembly. The priorities are in the Lincoln Cottage Declaration:

“We who joined the May 11, 2016 assembly at the Lincoln Cottage in Washington, D.C. declare that the health potential of our people must be supported in order that the pursuit of happiness, prosperity of our people, and national security of our nation strengthen over the decades to come. Therefore, we resolve to: ensure that every child begins life well and has everything they need to thrive. To further ensure that all children thrive, we resolve to: interrupt the incarceration rate, undo neighborhood poverty concentrations and work to neutralize the racism that undermines our collective happiness and prosperity. We will act on these declared resolutions in the name of health equity and prosperity and in support of 100 million people living healthier lives by 2020.”

This statement set the priorities that shaped the design for the next and largest gathering of the project in 2016.

The great strength of the August 4-5 Assembly for Health Equity and Prosperity at the University of Maryland arose from the diversity of the hundreds of people who gathered to share their commitment to act. This diversity was social and economic as well as racial, cultural and geographic with teenagers joining elders to share stories and visions. In patient safety there is a saying “nothing about us without us” and this is equally important for health equity and prosperity, for people who have lived experience with inequity can teach those of us with more privileged lives. It was remarkable to have people who never completed high school share stories, dialogue and vision with executives from government, business and non-profit organizations large and small. One young woman still in high school told the assembly she had never come to a conference before and thought it would be boring. She found it wasn’t. She thought she would experience at least a little bit of racism. She didn’t. She talked to people from business and government who took her seriously and, when she spoke to over three hundred people at the assembly, they listened respectfully. One accomplished older woman told her before the gathering that she would be going to many more conferences over the years–as a keynote speaker.

If over time the assembly helps make health equity and prosperity a central concern for society, it will likely be because of young people who are inspired to act. Perhaps the most inspiring moments at the assembly came when the potential of these young people became clear. One example came when the Children’s Theater of New York took the stage with pre-teens and young teenagers stepping forward to quote sages from different wisdom traditions with perfect inflection and body language to represent the age old moral intentions of health equity. Some of these kids performed the night before with professional actors in the world premiere of Henry Box Brown. This powerful musical dramatized the inequity of slavery, but also a race amity tradition as white people sacrificed their personal wellbeing to help a slave reach freedom. Theater Delta presented another drama at the assembly: Living, Surviving or Thriving. Actors addressed race relations in a current setting and then engaged the audience in a dialogue raising the many different forms in which injustice needs to be addressed. These powerful stories, along with personal stories shared by participants–black and white, young and old from the West, Mid-West, North, South and East–they all showed we can join together for the moral purpose of bringing health equity and prosperity to people who have suffered inequity.

This moral purpose was beautifully expressed in the many visions people shared at the close of the first day of the assembly. Then the second day focused on action and communication so that health equity and prosperity visions and actions will reach a larger number of people. People chose to create personal action plans for one or two of the twelve action areas mapped for systemic change by 100 Million Healthier Lives:

  1. Ensure every child thrives from cradle to career
  2. Transform from neighborhoods of concentrated poverty to communities of solution
  3. Interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline
  4. Promote race amity
  5. Replace chronic hunger with access to healthy food
  6. Decrease violence in our communities
  7. Help workplaces promote health and well-being
  8. Ensure Veterans have the supports they need
  9. Assure income security for families
  10. Turn the Tide on the opioid crisis in communities
  11. End homelessness in my community
  12. Use community based approaches to address chronic disease

Participants identified hundreds of resources to move toward the visions for health equity and prosperity. 100 Million Healthier Lives invites us all to work on these action areas and will coordinate efforts through their large network of people and organizations with a shared commitment. With support from 100 Million Healthier Lives, we used social media to reach 2 million people through Facebook and a Twitter Thunderclap on the second day of the assembly.

In the months following the assembly we have continued to work with 100 Million Healthier Lives, engaging another 1 million people on social media and helping many assembly participants connect to the larger network of people working on the action areas. We will continue this effort in 2017, while evaluating what worked for the Health Equity and Prosperity project. We invite all who want to join us in this effort to connect through http://www.100mlives.org. This work will prove all the more important to our collective futures over the years ahead.