Why I answered the call for IRL, and why we together answer the call for Interdisciplinary Research Leadership
In 2019, IRL selected 15 teams across two themes I am personally passionate about: Community Development and Health and Clinical Practice, Social Services and Health. Together as a cohort of research leaders, the possibilities for connecting the dots across people-oriented and place-based strategies through their community-engaged research is exciting and timely.
My journey with IRL started as an advisor to the program. I was leading the Twin Cities office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national community development intermediary and investor focused on helping people and places prosper. For 20+ years, I was a grantmaker, financier, and policy advocate–among other roles, including research and evaluation.
In my opinion, community development is a field where there is actually a dearth of quality research. As a sector, we often would joke we don’t need to evaluate our work. The impact speaks for itself. Look around, one can see the new housing built, blighted properties and commercial areas revitalized and so on. However, over time, that impact was being called into question.
For example, in 2008, at a meeting with 75 or more community development directors, affordable housing developers, small business leaders, local and national funders, and some elected officials, I heard a funder (and former academic) address the group by stating with no equivocation: “Community development hasn’t worked. It hasn’t solved poverty.”
This was stunning to me, particularly when neighborhoods locally had been experiencing real positive change. However, similar to other places in 2008, our region had also just experienced an erosion of many of these gains due to the mortgage foreclosure crisis that hit inner-city neighborhoods acutely, stripping financial assets from people who live in them.
The convening was a wake-up call about the value of community-engaged research. As a local sector, we had not built the base of evidence in terms of what had worked, was working or not, and what change was happening…and for whom. An influential outsider defined what impact local efforts would be measured by instead of the neighborhood residents who had worked so hard to rebuild their communities. We needed stronger research partners and evaluation capacities–and a more comprehensive approach to community building and understanding of impact.
I often describe community development as a “four-legged stool” with each leg being a form of capital: physical, economic, human, and social. Communities need all four forms of capital functioning well to be healthy places. This includes asset building, financial opportunity, and human capital development and leveraging social capital through the arts, recreation, and activation of community spaces to support health.
Here’s where my story of community development and health system/social service partnerships start to intersect.
One place where LISC has dedicated significant local resources was in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis where there is a large set of hospitals and the Allina Health system. We had been working alongside that health system, the city and county, and other corporate partners to support neighborhood revitalization strategies starting in the mid-1990s called the Phillips Partnership.
By the mid-2000s, Allina decided to create another neighborhood effort called the Backyard Initiative, in which Allina made a 10-year, $10 million investment focused on the neighborhood surrounding their hospital and headquarter campuses.
Allina leadership declared a set of boundaries for the “Backyard” and hired a University of Minnesota researcher to assess the community to establish a baseline of health and community data. Neighborhood residents revolted and called for a reimagining of the initiative–telling Allina that the hospital was in their backyard.
To Allina’s credit they listened and pivoted to support deeper community engagement and resident conversations about personal and community health. A pivot to support community from the bottom-up vs. a top-down traditional investment approach.
The Backyard Initiative recently celebrated the end of its 10-year effort but not without controversy about whether it “worked” or didn’t. The answer depends on what one is trying to measure for its “return on investment.” As an initiative, program and process goals were set and achieved, but the ultimate “ROI” was never quite defined due to a number of factors, including the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and a revolving door of Allina leadership. What did result was a lot of experimentation in community-institutional partnerships and conversations to support social connections, health education, activation and empowerment, and social determinants of health.
What had struck me being involved in both efforts (the Phillips Partnership and the Backyard) was that we didn’t achieve a stronger connection between the neighborhood and community development efforts and the resident-led conversations about health. For some likely reasons:
- Cross-sector work is difficult.
- Communities are complex.
- Systems are siloed – and riddled with structural oppression.
Among many other challenges. That’s why I answered the call for IRL, and why we together answer the call for Interdisciplinary – Research – Leadership.
The intersection of community development, healthcare and social services is what our newest cohort of IRL teams will explore together as they engage in their work. I couldn’t be more excited to see what innovation comes from their research leadership to build a Culture of Health.
The views represented in this post are those of the authors, not of Interdisciplinary Research Leaders or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.