When policy comes from the neighborhood
This past spring, LISC Chicago helped coordinate meetings between the Chicago Department of Public Health and our network of neighborhood organizations.
CDPH’s “ask” of our neighborhood partners was specific: What ordinances or system changes should the City adopt to achieve better health outcomes in your neighborhoods and/or the city at large? In short, what policy changes would you recommend?
The discussions, which were attended by more than 75 individuals representing more than 30 neighborhood and community health organizations, centered around CDPH’s Healthy Chicago agenda, which sets forth public health goals in twelve areas, including maternal and child health, violence reduction, obesity prevention, and breast cancer mortality disparities between black and white women.
The wisdom and neighborhood expertise our partners brought to these meetings was impressive, although not surprising. Participants communicated the health picture in their respective communities with clarity and shared what is working and what needs to change.
However, most of the ideas proposed during these discussions were programmatic in nature and not policy recommendations.
For example, to address healthy food access and obesity prevention, one group proposed that the city offer financial incentives to attract healthy businesses, such as grocery stores and gyms, to underserved areas (an especially tough sell given the current economic climate in our city).
This gravitation toward program design over policy design isn’t surprising. Practitioners understand that without supplemental programs and education, policies can lack impact at the neighborhood level. Programs are invaluable and our partners should rightfully advocate for them.
However, the Healthy Chicago discussions revealed an opportunity to expand our capacity. By moving into policymaking, we provide our partners the opportunity to develop and propose policies with the same confidence and conviction that they develop and propose programs.
Ultimately, the group shifted its recommendation toward policy, proposing, for instance, that the City adopt new ordinances to ease restrictions on mobile markets and food trucks, which would allow them to operate more freely in underserved neighborhoods and provide an infusion of fresh food and an alternative to fast food chains.
At LISC Chicago, we often say that our business is neighborhoods. We view our community partners as the experts and regard ourselves as providers of technical support
By providing basic training on policy formation, we provide our partners an opportunity to expand their expertise and provide them an additional avenue by which to advocate for their neighborhoods.
By providing basic training on policy formation (i.e., thinking through the benefits, the costs, whether the policy has been implemented elsewhere and to what effect, who will support and oppose the idea, etc.), we provide our partners an opportunity to expand their expertise and provide them an additional avenue by which to advocate for their neighborhoods.
I’m happy to report that the Healthy Chicago meetings culminated in eight recommendations for the City of Chicago, a mix of programmatic and policy recommendations.
During a meeting with the Public Health Commissioner in June, the group recommended the establishment and promotion of an official policy for the City and sister agencies to increase the awareness and practice of breastfeeding.
They proposed the establishment of an advisory board comprised of community leaders that the city would consult with when developing city-wide anti-violence strategies.
They suggested the City create a fund to provide short-term bridge loans to community organizations that receive state or federal funding but must wait, and often delay programming, until government funds are disbursed.
With encouragement from their peers, our community partners pushed themselves to think beyond programs and in policy terms—and they largely succeeded.
Going forward, the Chicago Department of Public Health will remain engaged with our neighborhood partners. They’ll provide updates on the status of the policies that were proposed and some participants may be called upon to testify on their behalf in the Chicago City Council. The department will continue to look to this group for neighborhood-level health information.
Most important, our partners will have a direct line to CDPH to propose additional programs and, of course, policies. With a bit of technical support from LISC Chicago and continued leadership from within their ranks, I can only imagine the policymaking potential.
Dominique Williams is a health fellow at LISC Chicago.
Posted in Planning, Chicago, Thinking Out Loud