Growing Equity and Health Equity in Perilous Times: Lessons From Community Organizers

Health Educ Behav. 2019 Oct;46(1_suppl):9S-18S. doi: 10.1177/1090198119852995.


Although a growing body of evidence underscores the contributions of community-based participatory research, community coalitions and other community engagement approaches to addressing health equity, one of the most potent forms of engagement-community organizing-has attracted far less attention in our field. Yet, organizing by and for communities, to build power, select issues, develop and use strategies, and take action to address the goals they collectively have set, may offer important lessons for public health professionals in these fraught times. We share, largely in their own words, the experiences and reflections of ~140 grassroots organizers across the United States who attended regional convenings of organizers in 2017, planned and run by four leading community capacity and base-building organizations, and where diverse organizers shared strategies that work, challenges faced, and the deep concerns among their already often disenfranchised communities in the contemporary sociopolitical and cultural context. After briefly reviewing some of community organizing's core tenets and complexities, we share our qualitative research methods and key findings about the primary cross-regional concerns raised (mass incarceration, voter suppression, and immigrant rights), the themes that emerged (e.g., centering leadership by women of color and of using a health lens to frame community issues), as well as the challenges faced (e.g., the retraumatization often experienced by organizers and the difficulties in building alliances between groups "that have been taught to distrust each other"). We conclude by discussing how many of the promising practices and lessons shared by the community organizers might enhance our own field's health equity-focused efforts, particularly if we take seriously one of their most bedrock messages: that there can be no health equity without racial equity and social justice, and that to get to health equity, we must first address equity writ large, particularly in troubling times.

Keywords: African American; LGBTQ; community health; qualitative methods.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • African Americans
  • Community Participation / methods*
  • Empowerment*
  • Health Equity / organization & administration*
  • Health Status Disparities
  • Humans
  • Leadership
  • Politics
  • Social Determinants of Health
  • United States