The time is now: Building power to achieve health equity

Written by: Gwyn Barley, PhD

Date: July 10, 2018

Editor’s note: This blog post is the fifth in a series of guest features on NCRP’s exciting new resource, Power Moves: Your essential philanthropy assessment guide for equity and justice.

Listen, read, take in the news, look around every day and you will hear and see what it means to live in this country as a Black or Brown person. You will read about systemic oppressions, differential treatments, impacts of racism, being “othered” and lives lost too soon. Every day.

It was by looking and learning that The Colorado Trust changed its focus to achieving health equity, which, as we have since learned, can’t be accomplished without addressing root causes with solutions that directly benefit the people experiencing the most inequities in a community or place.

We launched three initiatives: the Health Equity Learning Series, Health Equity Advocacy and Community Partnerships.

The learning series is as much for us as it is for relating narrative and research about impacts of inequity, unequal power and race.

The advocacy work is driven by a cohort of 18 diverse organizations that are working together to change policies and laws that maintain inequitable and oppressive systems.

Community Partnerships builds power to achieve health equity using a place-based and resident-driven approach. Teams of residents in communities across Colorado research and name the root causes and solutions they need funded.

Long-term funding goes directly to the resident team through a fiscal sponsor that we partner them with and also cover the fees.

In several of the communities, residents have uncovered lack of social cohesion, social disintegration and loss of culture as core root causes of inequities.

They are also focused on systemic inequities where unequal practices and policies are generational: the local economy, housing, education and environment, to name a few.

Health and race equity are inseparable. Living Cities notes that if we aim to address racial inequity, we must understand it in terms of power.

Racism, at its core, is a tool to establish and maintain power structures that are centered on whiteness.

When we don’t talk about power and power dynamics at all levels – individual, interpersonal, institutional and systemic – we perpetuate all kinds of inequity, including health inequity.

NCRP’s Power Moves provides a timely assessment tool to understand how we are doing in building, sharing and wielding power in our work and as an organization that holds much power. Upon initial reflection on the guidelines, I found them helpful to take a pulse on where we are related to moving power:

  • Building power is described as “supporting systemic change by funding civic engagement, advocacy and community organizing among marginalized communities.” We are funding under-resourced communities to build power to achieve health equity and be their own agents of change. We are funding cross-cutting approaches. We are funding for the long term. We also are building engagement, leadership, organizing and advocacy capacity across all the work to support moving power. We could be more explicit about advancing systemic equity for specific marginalized communities in our goals and strategies. We are working internally to be more responsive, trustworthy and respectful of all of our external stakeholders.
  • Sharing power is described as “nurturing transparent, trusting relationships and co-creating strategies with stakeholders.” We strive to be fully responsive, inclusive and transparent in all communication. Sometimes, we miss the mark. We do invest in the success of the communities and grantees by granting long-term support. We strongly engage with and trust communities to make funding decisions. We also center narratives and stories to deeply understand lived experiences and real fears.
  • Wielding power is described as “exercising public leadership beyond grant making to create equitable, catalytic change.” We convene grantees and community stakeholders, while also playing a role as supportive participant at other convening tables. We can do more with organizing and collaborating with philanthropic peers that share common concerns and with other sectors, such as government. We can do more to inform, raise awareness and advocate by using our reputation and expertise to bring visibility to critical issues and amplify the voices of the most marginalized. We can also do more to deploy non-grant financial assets creatively to advance foundation and grantee goals, and shift resources and power to underinvested communities.

Taking this pulse helps to see where we are making progress and where we must grow. My team is excited to dig in more.

Clearly, the work of power building gets more challenging as you go deeper in building, sharing and wielding power. Yet philanthropists have a unique opportunity and obligation to do so. The work may not be easy, but it is most certainly urgent.

Gwyn Barley, PhD is vice president of Community Partnerships & Grants at The Colorado Trust. Follow @NCRP and @ColoradoTrust on Twitter, and join the conversation using #PowerMovesEquity.

Download your free copy of Power Moves: My essential philanthropy assessment guide for equity and justice now.