Spokane Journal of Business

We’re a model for culture of health


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In Spokane, we don’t often afford ourselves the privilege of self-congratulation. Too many challenges remain unsolved, we say. Not enough of whatever attracts us to larger cities, or smaller ones, we whine. And what about those potholes?

That thought ran through my mind recently as I sat in the atrium of the $9 billion Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in Princeton, N.J., and watched as Spokane and five other communities received the RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

The prize, in its second year, isn’t given for having solved all the problems a community faces. Nor is it given necessarily for having enviable statistics. Rather, it’s given, sparingly, to communities the foundation’s leaders believe—and I’ll use their words— “are beacons of hope and progress for healthier people and families.”

For most in Spokane, this honor will go unnoticed, its significance misunderstood. But here’s the thing—though modesty or cynicism may preclude fist pumps in the Lilac City, to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which vetted more than 250 communities across the nation before making its decision—this is a big deal. To the foundation, this is a very big deal.

The Culture of Health Prize isn’t intended to be a grant, though it does come with a $25,000 check. Instead, it’s intended by the foundation to showcase model efforts to improve communities, both to encourage those communities to do even more and to share their strategies with others in hopes of replicating them elsewhere. The other five communities were Brownsville, Texas; Buncombe County, N.C.; Durham County, N.C.; Taos Pueblo, N.M., and Williamson, W.V.

A “culture of health” can mean many things, and so the efforts of this year’s winning communities varied markedly. Spokane’s was innovative in that context, essentially connecting the dots between the statistical characteristics of a person’s health and that of his or her income and level of education. What if we could make our community healthier by ensuring that more people get a good education and enjoy a fruitful career? The data suggest we can, and so a host of community collaborations, initially led by Priority Spokane, set out several years ago to pursue that notion.

Backed with tons of data and generous grants, the collaborations worked together to push high-school graduation rates here from less than 60 percent to about 80 percent in just a few years. They identified triggers, mostly among middle-school children, that indicate a high-percentage chance of later dropping out of school, and then targeted those at-risk kids for extra help. Those efforts evolved and grew from there.

Though the improved graduation rate alone illustrates tremendous progress on a key community issue, it’s the model for the efforts that gained the attention of the foundation. Spokane stood out for its intentional focus on combining meaningful data, setting measurable goals, and securing broad-based collaboration with single-minded purpose. That was evident at the two-day event in Princeton, where representatives from all six award-winning communities spent every moment possible picking one another’s brains.

Let’s be clear. We have serious challenges in our community, and no one is hoisting the victory flag yet. But it’s also OK to pat ourselves on the back when we work together to face such challenges head-on, with enviable purpose. So go ahead and celebrate this one. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has given you permission.

  • Paul Read

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