Innovations Conference Focuses on Valley’s Health

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Over the past 40 years, the public perception of tobacco has resembled something of an inverted bell curve. In the late 1960s, it wasn’t uncommon to see celebrities of all sorts hawking their favorite brands.

But then, new advertisements started popping up, warning bluntly that smoking kills.

Today, advertisements dealing with tobacco often involve former smokers who had heart surgery or otherwise show the health dangers that go along with smoking, including lung cancer, emphysema and pregnancy complications.

In the last few years, though, new alternatives to smoking – ones that aren’t necessarily safer – have arisen, such as hookah and e-cigs.

“And that has the CDC terrified,” said Natalie Burke, the president and CEO of CommonHealth Action and keynote speaker at Thursday’s Innovations Conference.

It’s also a reminder that culture, especially when it pertains to health, is a constantly moving target.

“And that means you have the opportunity, here in the Mahoning Valley, to change the culture so you can change health outcomes. But that means you have to maintain stewardship over a culture that produces health,” she said. “This is not a one-shot deal. … This will go on for a long time and you will have to maintain it.”

The conference was hosted by the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley with some of its component funds: the Western Reserve Health Foundation, the Trumbull Memorial Health Foundation and the William Swanston Charitable Fund.

CommonHealth Action, based in Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit that works with organizations across the country to help them “align people, strategies, and resources to create solutions to health and policy challenges.”

The focus of the Innovations Conference was on collaboration to affect public health outcomes in the Mahoning Valley. Burke’s presentation, in particular, dealt with what’s necessary to build a foundation for such partnerships. Among the most crucial things to consider is the language used when forming partnerships.

She pointed to one meeting she had years ago where collaborators who’d been working together saw the impact of their efforts begin to plateau. During the meeting, she asked each person, all 17 of them, to say what they meant by “health.”

She got 17 answers.

“Too often, people jump into the work because they want to get stuff done. They don’t set the tone or bar in making sure they’re talking about the same thing by establishing common language,” she said. “They run on the assumption that when you say ‘health’ and I say ‘health,’ we mean the same thing. That can mean failing in the change we hope to make.”

Even something as simple as taking the time to put together a basic glossary for partners to use can make a difference.

In the same vein, taking time to do “relationship mapping” to coordinate goals, values and methods can ensure that collaborations have the potential for long-term success.

“Collaboration takes on different forms at different times and it’s important to go into collaboration understanding the history and context of relationships where you are. Relationships are primary and everything else is derivative,” Burke said. “How, at a community level, can you be in relationships with one another in new and different ways to solve old problems? That’s really what it comes down to.”

Concluding her speech, Burke touched on the importance of understanding privilege and using it to have positive impacts on those who are oppressed. Privilege, she explained, is value assigned to people based on social identities. Having a college degree confers privilege, as does race, income and being able-bodied.

“It’s nothing we’ve done or didn’t do. We feel privilege and oppression as individuals in different ways throughout our lives,” she explained. “How can [people with privilege] take that and use it to create commissions and changes with people who share privilege with them? I want to begin a conversation to help people figure out how these things factor into whether people have equitable opportunities to achieve their best possible health.”

Following Burke were presentations laying out the health risks facing the Valley, potential solutions and, keeping with the conference’s theme, what partnership opportunities are available. Everything from the layout of streets and crosswalks to the location of city parks to the addition of grocery stores can have an impact on the health outcomes of a community.

In Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health launched a program to improve access to healthful fruits and vegetables in food deserts. Through a grant from the Health Food for Ohio program, the health board was able to help businessman Simon Hussain start a grocery store, Simon’s Supermarket, on Euclid Avenue in Euclid.

It wasn’t just enough for the store to have the fresh food, though, noted Ann Stahlheber, manager of the health board’s Creating Healthy Communities initiative. Through community meetings, Hussain and the board found that while citizens were eager for the store, there was some trepidation.

But through those meetings, the owner found what it would take to make his store successful – being on site daily, having low prices, keeping the plaza Simon’s occupies clean, among them. Even after opening a year ago, the store has continued to adapt, offering transportation home for customers who arrive via public transit and expanding its catering services.

“People have mentioned [as a reason for food deserts] that there’s not a lot of buying power in the Mahoning Valley. People say it about Cleveland,” Stahlheber said. “We’ve had our population shrink the past couple decades, but if you look at the money in neighborhoods, you can be surprised. People still need to buy food.”

David Shipps, the Ohio office director for Toole Design Group, delved into the the idea of “complete streets,” or pathways that allow for all types of transportation, whether its users are pedestrians, cyclists, drivers or using public transit. These roads are gaining popularity nationwide and have a positive impact on health as nearby residents are more likely to walk through their neighborhoods and the roads are safer, whether because of slower traffic, better marked crosswalks or several other factors.

With all of the issues presented at the Innovations Conference, from how to build a collaborative foundation to some of the specific health issues facing the Mahoning Valley, Community Foundation President Shari Harrell said she hoped the conference could serve as a jumping off point for groups to begin working together.

“It is long-term and complex and messy. There are ways to begin to make inroads and have a positive impact in the Valley,” Harrell said. “We can make our communities more walkable and find common ground in things like making those areas safe so people use playgrounds or sidewalks. If there’s more infrastructure, there are more people, there are more eyes on the street, so crime goes down. It just has to start somewhere.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.