Our community of Austin, Texas, is recognized as one of the healthiest cities in America. Yet, that recognition ignores the reality facing many neighborhoods. Of all Austin zip codes, 78744—a community often referred to as Dove Springs—has the highest prevalence of youth obesity and lacks access to healthy food and safe places to engage in physical activity.
And yet there are bright spots. This tight-knit community has many resident leaders with experience advocating for improved healthcare access, better transportation options, and programs to improve resident safety and reduce crime. We know we can’t effectively or sustainably address complex public health issues like childhood obesity unless we partner with people within the communities most deeply affected.
In 2012, we partnered with community organizations, schools, and residents to launch GO! Austin/¡VAMOS! Austin (GAVA), a place-based, cross sector effort to improve the health of children living in Dove Springs. A year later, the initiative expanded to neighboring 78745. The goal of this place-based work was twofold: Support leaders in their design and prioritization of an evidence informed initiative that can help drive change in specific neighborhoods while maintaining enough flexibility to be applicable in other urban communities. And provide timely data transparency to hone in on strategies that are working, while moving on from those that don’t.
We’ve seen incredible changes in the communities of South and Southeast Austin—such as improved quality of parks, pedestrian infrastructure and green spaces; increased availability of affordable, fresh produce and healthy options at farms stands and in neighborhood corner stores; reduced barriers to these healthy living sites; and, increased use of recreation centers, trails, parks, and healthy food access points. We’ve also seen the strengthening of community leadership capacity and institutional networks who are primed to take on additional issues that limit access to healthy opportunities and building demand for healthy options. Most recently, we’ve been excited to see GAVA methods, tools, and staff tapped for community-driven work in other neighborhoods and sectors like healthcare. GAVA roles and methodology have now been embedded at a number of community organizations including local nonprofits, departments within the City of Austin and the Austin Independent School District.
Now in year six of implementation, GAVA is on an independent path, determining its own future operationally and as an organization within the Austin community ecosystem. Through technical assistance and curated tools, the GAVA coalition is sharing its best practices and efforts regionally and nationally. GAVA began with the belief that a healthy lifestyle should be easily accessible for everyone. A resident-led initiative that leverages multi-sector partnerships and an engaged community has proved that it can be.