Carmen Llanes Pulido: Collaboration ensures sustainability in community health

This blog is part of a GO! Austin/VAMOS! Austin (GAVA) series that focuses on the longevity and sustainability of the initiative. You can find more information on GAVA here.

Since launching Go Austin! ¡Vamos Austin! (GAVA), our multi-year, coordinated childhood obesity prevention initiative, questions that loom in the minds of many have been, “How will these efforts live on beyond an initial grant? Where will the resources to sustain them come from?”

Our strategy for sustainability is derived from experience—everything we as community directors, partners, and residents have learned through years of trying to affect change before and during the GAVA initiative. We know there’s a direct correlation between access to healthy options—physical activity opportunities and healthy food—and healthy behavior changes. Understanding access – and barriers to access – is key to the relationships we’re building and structures we’re creating.

To perpetuate access and utilization of assets gained in the community, we work toward sustainability in a variety of ways. Our focus on scale and longevity is strategically based on the specific needs, wants, and availability of the residents as well as the realities of how those elements evolve over time. This is why we’ve witnessed positive outcomes thus far and why we trust GAVA’s outcomes will continue and evolve far beyond these initial, formative years. There are several pillars to our sustainability efforts:

Team building is the foundation of our work.

Collaboration and coordination among sites and micro-neighborhoods requires patience and an investment in relationship-building.  It requires hundreds of individual conversations, each uncovering a unique set of interests and skills.  Teams built upon those common desires and concerns become vehicles for collective changes. Team members, by addressing concerns of their individual family, are providing a public service that benefits their entire community.

Careful leadership development ensures that responsibility for projects and institutional relationships is shared among a broad group. As in many communities, there are exceptional neighbor or community leaders always willing to serve others or represent those without a voice at community meetings and city hall. These heroes need support, as well as an opportunity to step back and let others lead—not only to avoid burn out but to capitalize on the leadership potential of other residents.  Our team instructs strong leaders to mentor others and consciously work to recruit new people to enhance their group’s efforts, expand their reach and sustain years of growth.

Understanding access – and barriers to access – is key to the relationships we’re building and structures we’re creating.

GAVA teams are institutionalizing into permanent bodies that can endure and can leverage long-term support.

The City of Austin’s Adopt-a-Park program. Austin Independent School District’s increased formalization of Coordinated School Teams on every campus. Transitioning micro-neighborhood geo teams into formal neighborhood associations.  As these initiatives evolve, we’re nurturing teams that can exist with or without GAVA. However, we know our results provide demonstrable incentives for more funders and partners to collaborate with us. Others in public health—who also stand to benefit–already see the value in place-based, systems change-level work.

Our coalition is changing the way that organizations and institutions work together.

Our partners and collaborators are innovators. They realize health and well-being directly affect quality of life. Addressing the built environment through a coordinated approach reveals a host of community assets. Organizations have created staff positions dedicated to outreach and organizing, not only in our zip codes, but for their work city-wide. These partners have witnessed the immense return on investment when residents are at the forefront of community decisions and initiatives. They understand residents are the community’s experts on needs, desires, and assets. Given the opportunity, those experts make our jobs easier and more fulfilling.

Teams will address issues beyond the immediate scope of nutrition and fitness, and funders can expect new kinds of results.

Austin families face a housing crisis due to the increasing cost of living without an equivalent increase in income. And these conditions impact our health crisis. The economic displacement of low-to-moderate income families in Austin threatens the impact of great improvements in 78744 and 78745. Our hope for the future lies in our teams: 1) Their relationships, sense of community and sense of collective efficacy has only grown, so they will prioritize staying in this community at all costs.  2) We are giving teams the tools to affect other systems and advocacy efforts across the city related to living wages, affordable housing, education, and inclusive city planning processes.

We believe that when a team is organized and robust, they can take on nearly any issue or challenge and come out stronger. And we trust our partners have a vested interest in sustaining this work, so we’ll push ourselves to advocate on behalf of families to ensure they remain in their communities and reap the benefit of so much hard work.

While it is difficult to precisely forecast how this initiative and these structures will look in five to ten years–what kinds of downstream outcomes will emerge–we know we’re constructing the pillars of long-term success. The people in these communities are invaluable and often untapped resources, and their collaboration ultimately holds the key to a healthy and thriving community.

Carmen Llanes Pulido is a community director for the Go Austin!/Vamos Austin! (GAVA) initiative.  Previously, Carmen worked as a community organizer for Marathon Kids engaging parents and teachers at Austin elementary schools to build healthier campuses. She served on Austin’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, which drew maps for Austin’s first geographically representative city council. 


Read other blogs in the series:

Next steps in the movement towards better health