Data + residents + organizations = community impact

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 about GAVA here.

As a community practitioner working directly with communities on root causes of social issues, I can attest that data, evaluation and evidence are essential tools. They’re even more powerful when informed and contextualized by –then made accessible to—the very communities we seek to impact. This is certainly true in the ongoing work we’re doing with the GO! Austin/VAMOS! Austin (GAVA) Initiative.

A different set of challenges

After gaining momentum in Dove Springs’ 78744, two years ago the GAVA efforts began to scale to include a second zip code, 78745. This second community was starting from a different point than the first GAVA community. In Dove Springs:

  • Many partners in the GAVA coalition had previous experience in organizing with residents around health issues.
  • Residents had long ago established a community identity and proven their efficacy in advocating for themselves.

Yet, when we started working with residents in 78745, the community had no name, no city neighborhood plan and only a small number of active neighborhood associations. Progress would require an assets-based approach with participatory assessment methods and community organizing. We knew we faced a different set of challenges.

Luckily, we had assets to help us begin the work.  Our resident and community teams have relied on a roadmap of evidence-based strategies developed by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Children’s Optimal Health’s GIS maps of obesity hotspots to guide our work. The roadmap documented successful strategies implemented in communities across the country and provided a menu of options that stimulated residents’ creativity and resolve to tackle the childhood obesity issue. The obesity hot spot maps magnified neighborhood conditions and functioned as motivational tools among residents and other institutions to spark involvement in coalition efforts.  GAVA partners utilized the maps to make collective, strategic decisions about recruitment, development of community leaders, and utilization of community assets.

We now have hard data depicting the improvements in assets, as well as the changing awareness of and appetite for access to physical activity and healthy foods.

Building a resident-led coalition

Rather than organizations independently dictating how to tackle community needs, GAVA initiated conversations with residents about how we could work together to mobilize the collective talent and resources of residents and institutions to improve adopted spaces. With residents, we developed GAVA action plans—informed by tools we crafted together—for the assessment of community assets. This allowed community to take ownership of efforts and strengthened relationships between organizations and residents that have resulted in improved access points for physical activity and healthy food options.

As the project has progressed, support from the UT School of Public Health and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation has helped us assess the growing interconnectivity and the strategies being employed by leaders to impact their environment of health.  We now have hard data depicting the improvements in assets, as well as the changing awareness of and appetite for access to physical activity and healthy foods. Our data systems are continuously growing in their capacity to assess the growing cadre of leaders shepherding change in their neighborhood so that the community can be supported in their work.

Driving health behaviors and guiding a growing coalition

Today, the work of improving access continues across the four sectors of GAVA: Schools, Out of School Time, Physical Activity and Food (Food Retail & Local Food). We have merged many institutional efforts across the two zip codes and are witnessing the power of building a community identity across two unique, but connected, Austin communities. Existing robust, diverse teams continue to evolve and a growing number of partners engage in the coalition as we continue toward a critical mass of neighborhood stewards owning the improvement of neighborhood assets. We are now able to pivot our attention to driving utilization of these improved assets and directly improving healthy behaviors in two communities.

There is already an interest in replicating our work in other parts of the nation. As we work to increase the wealth of human capital, innovate tools to effectively manage and coordinate coalition resources and increase adoption, we assume the role of social scientists who directly involve the community. Our Efforts to Outcomes database now maps all achieved strategies across GAVA’s three operation categories: Sustainability, Access and Utilization. These strategies are also ranked by their capacity to create impact, based on a model of “Dose” developed by the Kaiser Foundation. All of this populates dashboards built by resident teams, allowing us to see data on adopted assets such as strategies and resources assigned. These dashboards are living work plans for our efforts, fed by data from the community.  Soon, resident-led teams will also use that insight and information to better depict how their efforts produce outcomes for their own community, then determine where they’ll next focus their efforts and leveraged Coalition resources. The future is bright for our resident led coalition.

Alba D. Sereno, MSSW  is a community director for the GO! Austin/¡VAMOS! Austin (GAVA) initiative.  Previously, Alba has worked at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the UN High Commissioner Refugees Community Services Unit, and with Travis County Health and Human Services Social Services Unit, always practicing in the areas of working toward social justice for vulnerable populations. She currently serves as the Vice Chair of the City of Austin’s Commission on Immigrant Affairs.