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Can our programs foster societal change?

By Joshua Kukowski

I've had the privilege of teaching some sessions to some local youth program managers.  At the end of each session, many want to know if they are actually making a difference.  I always answer "yes", because they of course are! I tell them that their work is important and each of them is a key person in a young person's life. But it doesn't seem to resonate with them and I can't quite figure out why.  It may be because they want to make an impact beyond the individuals they serve.

So, I've paused and reflected on this question. My reflection has led me to think about individual programs and their impact, and to think a bit differently and broader. Can programs lead to societal change?

Programs will do what we design them to do (of course, with some exceptions). Good design leads to good outcomes.  So, one way to change the design is the involve community at every step of the way.  This is complex. It may be so complex as to push us back into our safe zones of self-contained design, to working with traditional, reliable partners.  But working in safe zones doesn't usually advance our programs much.

New partners

Those old, reliable partners may not be from the community we are trying to reach and may actually reduce our impacts.  Of course you should always involve youth, but also consider the following groups as partners:
  • Public safety
  • Community councils
  • Faith based 
  • Parent-teacher associations
  • ESL participants and citizenship classes
  • Transportation systems
  • Chambers of commerce
  • Parks and Rec

Fostering a culture of health

At the same time, I'm part of a growing community that focuses on a culture of health.  One of my biggest takeaways is that sustainable change happens at the societal level.  So, in order to make change, you need to have programs that reflect society.

Health needs to be defined very broadly (I immediately think about hospitals and running paths) and by community.

Here’s a tool that can help shape conversations with those partners.
  • CountyHealthRankings, jointly sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. This tool can help you gather a positive, yet representative coalition to consider your community-led program design. As health care spending approaches 20% of our national economy and is not slowing down, think about youth as change agents. They may be able to change this conversation and contribute to solutions.  
  • Another tool is the Social Impact Calculator, which puts a dollar figure on community development projects. I have used this to think about potential impact of projects, or the cost of inaction. This tool has many surprises that can lead to interesting conversations about what your community is doing to move people out of poverty. Those discussions are rich and should involve youth to decipher why their community is moving up – or not.  

I'll circle back to those youth program managers and encourage them to bring youth to the table and consider a culture of health.  What will you do? How do you involve community in program design? What does a culture of health mean to you?

-- Joshua Kukowski, Extension educator

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  1. Thank you, Joshua! Thought provoking blog; this would be a great conversation starter as many counties work with the GOT:VIVA process, Focus Groups, and Steering Committees.
    Another great partner might be with Community Action programs. Every county in MN has one, and they are doing ground-level work with families as well - and looking to connect their consumers with programs that can benefit whole families!

  2. I know - some interesting data points along with our traditional ones. I think sometimes we often look for negative points to 'solve' them...but I also think that these data points show community strengths as well. I stumbled across one that showed that NW and SW Minnesota had the highest rates of social mobility in the USA...

    Yes, community action is a valuable tool as well for families. How have you connected with them?

  3. Hi, Joshua. For me, I think of a culture of health as a culture of being happy. What do we need to be happy? When we answer this question, we think about what we need physically, emotionally, spiritually. So when we're thinking about our programs, we can think about what piece of that pie we're contributing too. I think that can be a way to help people understand what they are contributing to when they volunteer to help a young person. Have them think about what they want for children--it's what we all want for our own children--for them to be happy! How do we help them be happy? We help them feel loved, safe, stimulated to grow. And when we can do that, we help build a culture of health.

    1. Thank you for simply saying what we all really want for our young people and our communities.


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