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Transformative Partnership

Case Study: St. Joseph Health — Sonoma County

Neighborhood Care Staff/Agents of Change Training in our Neighborhood

For many people in Sonoma County, the basic conditions that support health and well-being seem out of reach. Families struggle financially and many youth do not graduate from high school. Sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy eating contribute to increasing levels of obesity and overweight, yet access to affordable healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity is often lacking. Tobacco use and substance abuse, unhealthy community conditions, and lack of access to health and support services also contribute to preventable illness and inhibit a healthy community.

St. Joseph Health-Sonoma County continues a 400-year community action legacy of the Sisters of St. Joseph through its Community Benefit Department, healthy communities programs, Neighborhood Care Staff (NCS), and grassroots leadership development programs—Agents of Change Training in our Neighborhoods (ACTION). Through NCS, the hospital transcends its walls to help people help themselves. Every major achievement of NCS has started small: handshake by handshake, door by door, NCS organizers are building relationships across the county.

An NCS organizer, once having attracted a core group of willing community leaders or activists, facilitates their dialogue, helps them define and focus their values, issues, and actions—not NCS values or agenda. Deeply rooted in the principles and practices of social justice and healthy communities, ACTION leadership training then helps the group build its capacity for collective action and develop local Agents of Change.

ACTION graduates have addressed violence and adversarial relationships between law enforcement and Latino residents by creating an annual, violence-free Cinco de Mayo celebration, led and supervised by residents, that attracts up to 10,000 people each year. Others have successfully petitioned the blocking of new liquor stores in a neighborhood, partnered with the Redwood Empire Food Bank to expand its summer lunch program; organized multiple community gardens, created a farm cooperative through a partnership with day laborers and a local church; and initiated bilingual community radio shows led by children, adolescents, and adults.

Sandy and Lizbeth, with support from NCS and ACTION training, decided to help form Nuestra Voz (Our Voice). It seeks to engage and educate the local Latino community to improve and protect the health of their neighborhood. Visiting the library weekly, they selected stories to read on the air, birthing the new radio show, ‘Nuestras Vocecitas’ (‘Our Little Voices’). It engaged children and youth in discussions about the stories, and brought guests to address issues important to them. The children also received ACTION training, becoming recognized leaders within their organization, Nuestra Voz. In creating a new vision for themselves and their communities, Sandy and Lizbeth, grew in confidence. Supported by scholarships, Sandy is now completing her degree in psychology and Lizbeth studies medicine to become a pediatrician.

ACTION-trained leaders of Nuestra Voz have had many environmental, policy, and social impacts. In 2011 the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors partnered with the Larsen Park Garden Coalition to create the first-ever community food garden located in a Sonoma County regional park, in a community-driven effort to increase access to healthy foods and take public spaces from local gangs. The county contracted with Nuestra Voz to build, operate and maintain the garden.

Local Spanish-speaking women, concerned about poor food being served to their children in schools, felt powerless. With support from Nuestra Voz, they entered into dialogue with the Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s Food Services Director. Within months, the District was offering healthier choices and establishing a new relationship with the local Latino community.