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National Public Health Week Spotlight Series: Kim Rodgers, Center for Community Resilience at GWU

In recognition of National Public Health Week, Research!America is spotlighting public health professionals who work at the national and local levels to address the most pressing issues that affect communities nationwide.

Below, Kim Rodgers, MA, Program and Communications Manager for the Center for Community Resilience at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health discusses the Center’s process for tackling the root causes of childhood adverse experiences and shares how false narratives perpetuate inequities and how they can be changed to advance social and racial justice.

What informs the work that you do?

Our Center’s understanding that inequity is created by design is the biggest thing that informs our work. Centuries of policies and practices have been put in place in America to create the outcomes we see. We have to tell the truth about that — as uncomfortable as it might be — in order to build something new. In the same way that policies and practices can be used to oppress, we can dismantle those and build new ones that support all people’s ability to thrive and access good health, economic, and social outcomes. But again, we first must be honest about the systemic drivers creating the trauma and adversity that keeps people unhealthy and unwell.

In what ways do you collaborate/engage with partners, stakeholders, workgroups, or other agencies?

Collaboration is central to everything we do. Inequity doesn’t happen in a vacuum — it’s produced by the systems that we all interact with. So, all of those systems need to have a role in creating more equitable community environments that support health and well-being. Much of our work is implemented at the local and regional levels, so we make it a priority to support our partners in building cross-sector coalitions and partnerships that allow them to tackle the root causes of inequity from different angles.

We then listen to those coalitions and the communities they serve to understand what issues are most urgent for them and what solutions they’d like to see, and we provide technical support — in the form of programs, trainings, research, and policy — to help them work on the ground to transform their communities and build resilience. An example of this is our Truth & Equity Initiative. We worked with a local coalition in Cincinnati to drive narrative change to create a shared understanding of the region’s history of racial oppression, convene multi-racial groups together for racial healing that cultivated collective power and political will, and develop a community-driven policy and advocacy platform aimed at dismantling structural racism and creating a more just and equitable city where all people could thrive.

We worked with the coalition to coordinate community conversations, interview residents who’d lived in the area for generations and produce a documentary to tell their stories, launch a learning curriculum to help local leaders advance equity within their field and sphere of influence, and are now working with the vice-mayor and city council to put the policy agenda into action. So, collaboration and engagement and relationships are critical to everything we do.

As an advocate for social and racial justice, in what ways are narratives used to perpetuate inequities? How can they be used to advance equity?

Narratives are a collection or system of related stories that represent a central idea or belief. They exist everywhere and are created by everyone. When a narrative begins to shape how people create meaning about the world and their place in it, it becomes known as a ‘public narrative.’ Public narratives give coherence to group experience, usually serve the interests of a dominant social group, and often go unnoticed, despite being interwoven in policy, mass media, and corporate discourse. Because public narratives are expressed all around us in subtle ways, over time they can become widely accepted as ‘fact,’ regardless of whether evidence supports their claims. What this means is that stories, or narratives — and the way we tell them — matter significantly to how we operate as individuals, in community, and as a larger society.

A current example of this is that ​​the average number of tweets per day using slurs such as “groomer” and “pedophile” in relation to LGBTQ+ people surged by 406% in the month after Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill was passed, resulting in a sharp spike in online homophobia and transphobia. So, that false narrative that LGBTQ+ people are a danger to children, is now being used to justify policies and practices — such as anti-drag bills and denial of gender-affirming care — that are suppressing an entire population of people’s rights and ability to access health.

This really demonstrates that words aren’t just words, and narratives — even those that are false — have serious implications in the public sphere. The silver lining in all of this is that we have the power to create new narratives that challenge the harmful ones. That process is gradual and hard because the dominant narratives in this country like white supremacy, individualism, meritocracy, etc., are deeply entrenched. But it is possible, and it must start with engaging communities and people who are most affected by structural violence that creates health and economic disparity. Their experiences and stories are the key to highlighting the dissonance in harmful narratives. Think about the narratives that exist around people who are impoverished. Lots of the discourse is focused on individual shortcomings — they don’t want to work hard, they’d rather take government handouts, they don’t know how to manage their money.

So, in turn, the responses are individualized. How many times have we heard that financial literacy is the key to getting people out of poverty? But that’s intentional — the point is to distract people from the systemic reasons that people are poor because addressing the root causes would threaten the current hierarchy and status quo. Essentially, if we want to disrupt these narratives, we first must be able to recognize them at play and then we can begin to actively challenge and replace them with narratives that support equity and justice.

Two of the daily themes for National Public Health Week are community and violence prevention. What is the Building Community Resilience program’s approach to addressing the root causes of community and childhood adversity?

Across all our programs, we use what we call the Building Community Resilience (BCR) process, to systematically identify the drivers of adversity and sources for support in our communities. It’s an iterative and nonlinear process of continuous quality improvement, which allows for it to be adapted and implemented in whatever way is most useful to groups who are coming together to catalyze transformative, systems-level change.

There’s four key components. The first being creating shared understanding. Because building community resilience requires engaging across sectors, it’s inevitable there will be differing opinions on, perceptions of, and solutions for the issues creating adversity in a community. Creating shared understanding is about establishing a degree of consensus so that when it’s time to co-create solutions for resilience, everyone is on the same page about context, challenges, opportunities, desired results, etc.

The second is assessing the state of readiness for change. Transitioning a community from trauma to resilience requires deep systems transformation that takes time — and sweeping change isn’t going to happen all at once. Even in a coalition where there’s shared goals, the capacity and the capabilities for trauma-informed care are going to differ across stakeholders. Assessing the state of readiness of a coalition, of external community stakeholders, and of the community more broadly helps to better negotiate how to prioritize a coalition’s time, attention, and resources. By analyzing the landscape you’re working within, including the political, social, and cultural dynamics,  you gain insight into where there’s potential for traction and where you can anticipate an uphill battle, helping to make more effective decisions about how to strategize, message, resource, and act for change.

Third is identifying roles and establishing accountability across cross-sector partners. Cross-sector partnerships are important because community trauma is intersectional and compounding. What’s happening in health care is related to what’s happening in schools, which is related to what’s happening in housing and so on. Every system holds a piece of the puzzle, which is why fostering equity requires all hands on deck. Partnering across sectors widens the scope of data and stories, resources, social capital, and community linkages available to coalitions, which are all critical to building collective will for policy and practice change.

Lastly, all of this is done with community engagement to mount a collaborative response to prevent adversity and build resilience. And of course, community is at the center of our collaborative’s work. The deepest understanding of trauma and resilience exists in the people who’ve experienced it. Lived experience is where the stories, lessons, and ideas exist, and giving space to that experience is vital to our work.

Bio: Kim Rodgers (she/her) is the Program and Communications Manager at the Center for Community Resilience in the Milken Institute School of Public Health. She leads the Building Community Resilience program and Truth & Equity initiative, providing capacity-building and technical assistance to multi-sector networks and stakeholders working to create healthy, resilient communities by addressing trauma and fostering equity. Kim has a special interest in exploring the ways that narratives are used to justify or obscure inequity, and co-creating new narratives that advance equity and social justice. In May 2022, she was selected to the first-ever cohort of the Culture of Health Leadership Institute for Racial Healing.

Prior to joining the Center, Kim spent five years as the communications manager at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, supporting local public health practice by promoting programs, tools and resources, and trainings developed by and for local health departments across a range of topics including: HIV, STIs, and viral hepatitis; emerging infectious diseases; immunization; emergency preparedness; and informatics. Kim has a master’s degree in health communication from George Mason University.