Building Community Power to Advance Health Equity

How do local community power-building organizations advance health and racial equity?

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A young mother comforts her baby.

The U.S. is one of the most dangerous high-income countries in which to give birth—especially for people of color. To achieve birth justice so that all who give birth can have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies, we must center the voices and experiences of Black, Indigenous and other people of color and dismantle the structural racism and health inequities that fuel these disparities. Learn more about our birth justice grantees.

Community power is the ability of communities most impacted by inequity to act together to voice their needs and hopes for the future and to collectively drive structural change, hold decision-makers accountable, and advance health equity.

For more than 20 years, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has supported community power organizations and advocacy networks that engage in grassroots organizing, particularly with people who are low-income, of color, and/or youths. The Foundation has supported communities in their power-building efforts to mitigate tobacco use and childhood obesity and, most recently, to improve community conditions and confront structural racism.

Elevating Community Power and Community Voice

As the pandemic and recent uprisings against racial injustice have laid bare, structural barriers and systemic racism remain persistent obstacles to achieving health equity. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are leading vital movements that are galvanizing their communities and seeding transformative change. Building power within communities is essential to the health and well-being of people that have endured decades of racial injustice, economic exclusion, social marginalization, and health inequities. 

Low-income people and communities of color have been excluded from decision-making on the policies and practices that impact their health and prosperity, through generations of systemic exclusion and disinvestment. Our learning has shown that the people most directly affected by systemic barriers and inequities are best positioned to identify the solutions and actions needed to drive change. 

That’s why community power is important to how RWJF contributes to transformative change, in a variety of areas—from housing, to healthcare, to birthing, to family caregiving. The evaluation of this work, which will center on the principles of equitable evaluation, should begin to shed light on the impact we can have in community power-building and support our learning efforts to hone our strategies.

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The inequalities laid bare by COVID-19 simply flow from the existing pandemic of racism and racial violence we are witnessing today.

RWJF President and CEO Richard Besser

Protestors march along a road in St. Louis County.

Protestors marching down Lucas-Hunt Rd. in Northern St. Louis County during the 2016 Walk for Justice. People came from throughout the county to participate in the walk, which was held in memory of Michael Brown, Jr. two years after his death.


Editor's Pick

To end America's maternal mortality crisis, dismantle the racism that fuels it

March of Dimes President and CEO Stacey Stewart and RWJF President and CEO Richard Besser write that we must dismantle structural racism and address health inequities to ensure that all pregnant people—regardless of skin color, income, or zip code—can have healthy pregnancies, healthy babies and the ability to thrive. That's birth justice. By prioritizing critical federal and state policy changes and centering the voices and experiences of Black, Indigenous and other people of color, we can save lives and end suffering now.


Featured Grantees

From the Blog

Closing the Medicaid Coverage Gap is a Health, Economic, and Moral Imperative

Closing the Medicaid coverage gap would save lives, reduce costs, and help eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities such as maternal mortality rates among women of color.

Related Content

What is Health Equity?

This RWJF report defines health equity and identifies crucial elements to guide effective action to reduce disparities in health status.

How does community power catalyze, create, and sustain conditions for healthy communities?

To answer this question, Lead Local brought together well-respected local power-building leaders and practitioners in the fields of community organizing, advocacy, public health, and science to lift up and document how power is built in low-income communities and communities of color.

Learn more
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