We are pleased to kick off a new Spotlight series to highlight MPHA partners across the state who are changing lives and communities to improve health and advance health equity. We hope this series will provide insight, ideas, and inspiration to all of our readers!
In our first installment, we interviewed Jessica Collins, Deputy Director for Partners for a Healthier Community in Springfield to understand more about Partners for a Healthier Community – an organization established in reaction to major financial cuts to the local health department and has now become a backbone organization in the region.
MPHA: How and why did PHC come to be?
Jessica Collins, Deputy Director, Partners for a Healthier Community (PHC):
In 1997 there were huge budget cuts that devastated the capacity of Springfield’s Department of Health & Human Services. A diverse group of local stakeholders—from hospitals, faith-based organizations, public agencies, insurers—saw the serious need to bolster services so they established PHC.
MPHA: How exactly does PHC support public health and address health equity in Springfield?
We address the work from many angles. As a partner and convener, PHC builds and strengthens coalitions by applying the methods of community organizers. We also work on the local and state policy levels to reduce or eliminate the barriers to the social determinants of health. We believe everything that we do should be sustainable, so we also work with direct service providers such as dental providers and school nurses, and build in sustainable systems of care- for example, preschoolers now incorporate dental services as a routine part of their year, and schools have nurse champions providing asthma education and prevention. With regard to advancing racial justice, we convene a budding network to better promote the vast trainings and workshops addressing racism in the Pioneer Valley and our Board of Directors have committed to encouraging non-profit boards in our region to learn more about race and health in order to create a health equity policy agenda. I want to also mention that research and evaluation methods underlie all of this. We just released a health impact assessment for a potential casino in Western Massachusetts; this was a process led by PHC in collaboration with UMass-School of Public Health and the City of Springfield’s HHS Department.
MPHA: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
Definitely our Bringing Early Education Screening & Testing (BEST) Oral Health program—it’s been recognized nationally as a best practice. We’re also very proud of our children’s immunization database. Additionally, we feel really good about Live Well Springfield. Back in 2007 PHC sparked a local coalition of 20 stakeholder organizations to address the obesity epidemic in the city that has become a multi-sector collaboration: Live Well Springfield For Each Other, Together. When the Act FRESH coalition was getting organized in 2011, we believed that being part of a statewide coalition with the same goals as us—policies to improve access to healthy eating and active living—could be helpful. And so far we’ve been right!
MPHA: What’s one upcoming thing you’re particularly excited about?
I’m very proud and excited about our new story-based marketing campaign! While we are working on environmental and policy changes, we also want people to make small changes in their daily lives in order to improve their health. Instead of going the usual route of fliers and PSAs, we decided to find everyday people in Springfield who have made small but significant changes and reaped the rewards. After we found and got to know these folks, they were willing to share their stories and are graciously letting us shine a light on them. Their stories will be on our regional transit buses (PVTA)- they’ve become local celebrities! We have an art exhibit opening called “The Real Stories Behind the Live Well Springfield Campaign,” on April 11th at STCC.
MPHA: You seem to put a lot of value on coalitions. Why?
We believe in the value and efficacy of working on the ground locally AND being involved politically at the larger, state level. It’s important for communities in western Massachusetts to stay connected to statewide groups. Act FRESH gives us visibility; sometimes that leads to more funding and sometimes it’s more kudos, which makes us proud. Act FRESH is incredibly valuable–it makes us function in a more sophisticated way; we can make sure our local work fits hand-in-glove with statewide initiatives. An example: If the Transportation Bond Bill passes with funding for Active Streets, Springfield already knows what that’s all about. We’ve already been working on an active streets policy so we’ll be eligible to apply for funding to help make our neighborhood streets safer and more inviting for walking, biking, and using the buses.
It’s not easy to create an effective coalition—it takes patience, experience, political savvy, and good, trusting relationships. When you balance coalition work with “results, process, and relationships” they become strong and can impact multiple systems at once. When that works, the results are more significant. Look what we’ve accomplished together—statewide school nutrition reform, a first-in-the nation Prevention & Wellness Trust, and hopefully a statewide complete streets program very soon.
MPHA: How do you work with your State Senators and Representatives?
As constituents in Western Massachusetts, it’s our responsibility to keep our state elected officials informed about what is happening in their districts—our communities. Often we’re simply sharing information with our elected officials and making sure they know we are a source of reliable information and thoughtful opinions. Other times, we ask them to support or reject a specific piece of legislation. They are always very interested in our perspective on the ground here in Springfield, and we’ve seen our input have a major influence on their actions.
MPHA: What advice does PHC have for communities thinking about starting a coalition related to improving health equity?
It’s very important to start with some type of training opportunity that’s a shared experience so that all involved are looking through the same lenses and using a shared vocabulary. Going through trainings focused on undoing racism has been essential for us and I encourage others to start with that as well.
MPHA: PHC recently updated its mission statement—what changed and why?
We recently underwent a “strategic re-set” and updated PHC’s mission to building “measurably healthy communities with equitable opportunities and resources for all through civic leadership, collaborative partnerships, and policy advocacy.” The word “measurably” is an important one for us—it’s been there from the start and remains there today. Being able to measure everything was very important to PHC’s founders and it still is. Our board added the words “for all” to further emphasize equity. The big change is that PHC is now working to serve the Pioneer Valley region, not just Springfield.
MPHA: What can we expect for the future of PHC?
We have recently re-framed our work to be a “public health institute” and expanded our geographic region focus beyond just the City of Springfield. We are truly committed to building the capacity of the residents of Greater Springfield—we bring in national speakers, high-level thinkers, and down-to-earth training so others can and will carry on the work as facilitative leaders. We want people to ask, “Why is ‘x-y-z’ happening in our community?” and utilize community engaged research and evaluation results to find and implement solutions.