This article was written by Megan Calpin and Jessica Luginbuhl. It was originally published in the Building Healthy Places blog on July 25, 2017.
Can a community market improve infant health? Can developing a local entrepreneurship culture reduce the number of babies born prematurely?
The Life Course Theory suggests that the answer is yes. In the US, African American babies are twice as likely to die in their first year of life compared to white babies. Despite years of investment in improving access to prenatal care and high quality services, racial inequities in birth outcomes persist. The Life Course Theory proposes that exposure to healthy environments early and throughout life can increase the likelihood of healthy birth outcomes from one generation to the next.
That’s why the UC Berkeley School of Public Health launched the Best Babies Zone (BBZ) Initiative in 2012, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The BBZ Initiative works to implement Life Course Theory at the crossroads of public health and community development practice. Because health is shaped by where we live, work, and play, the BBZ Initiative identified three small geographic areas to implementation of BBZ’s place-based, community-driven, multi-sector approach to reducing racial inequities in birth outcomes.
A place-based approach to improving infant health
BBZ Castlemont is one of the original three Zones, located in Oakland, CA. The effort there is led by the Building Blocks for Health Equity (BB4HE) Unit at the Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD). ACPHD has long valued resident leadership and vision. And the BB4HE Unit has a track record of working on cross-sector social determinants of health issues since its inception in 2009. Their work is presently sustained through funding from an anonymous donor and The San Francisco Foundation, The California Wellness Foundation, and Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit program.
Oakland’s Castlemont neighborhood has a long history of resident leadership, community organizing, and local enterprising. It was also the site of early community development efforts in the 1960s and continues to be a hub of strong community organizations. These assets—paired with recognized social, economic, and health inequities—made Castlemont an ideal location for the BBZ approach.
Putting resident priorities at the center
After gathering initial concerns from zone residents through community events and forums—such as the Castlemont Community Cafés—a few social determinants of health emerged as top concerns: safety and violence; local economy; community building; and education. To turn these issues into actions, BBZ Castlemont relied on the human-centered design approach taught to them by Gobee Group.
According to Gobee Group, human-centered design—sometimes called design thinking—supports “reframing problems in order to explore underlying assumptions” and consists of three phases: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.
- The inspiration phase is all about building empathy for the recipients of a program or process.
- Ideation is a time for wild brainstorming to explore all possible solutions.
- Implementation encourages rapid testing to refine carrying out ideas.
BBZ Castlemont’s work is guided by these phases. Staff focuses on starting small and getting to scale over time.
Building the local economy to improve community health
BBZ Castlemont’s team began considering local economic development strategies that would build on the history of arts and entrepreneurship in East Oakland.
For existing resident entrepreneurs who needed a place to sell their goods in the Zone, the Castlemont Community Market (CCM) provides a launching pad for small businesses and a monthly, all-ages gathering space to support community building. The CCM is held on the first Saturday of the month outside Youth UpRising, a key partner in BBZ Castlemont’s collaborative work and one of Castlemont’s anchor institutions. Leadership within the CCM has evolved with a burgeoning vendors association, comprised of six vendors who either live or work in the neighborhood and create natural skin and hair care, jewelry, or clothing products.
A way to further build entrepreneurship capacity in the zone was a nine-week entrepreneurship training program on business development. Through a partnership with the Oakland-based Mandela MarketPlace, East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, and Centro Community Partners, this program began in 2016 out of an identified need for business incubator programs for those with little to no business experience or start-up capital. Staff always seek to link direct services to upstream programs, so they recruited some participants through ACPHD’s perinatal and infant home visiting programs as well as the CCM vendor community.
Lastly, a mini-grant program provides seed-funds to residents and partner organizations to conduct community-driven projects aligning with resident priorities. An advisory body with residents, local organizations, and BBZ staff select the awardees and advise on the implementation of the projects, building the capacity of local residents to fulfill their natural role as leaders. Former projects include the East Oakland Swim Club and the Castlemont Community Play-Time. Both projects are examples of drawing on local resident knowledge to improve community well-being. Both projects are now supported by other entities, such as Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation and First 5 Alameda County, respectively.
BBZ Castlemont’s approach to health equity and community development continues to be a shining example of what is possible when programs keep local residents at the center while putting the Life Course Theory into practice. Zone residents have become ACPHD staff and BBZ Castlemont staff have become leaders and advisors in the BBZ National Learning Community, providing technical assistance to a new set of three BBZs launched in January 2017. As this Zone moves into its seventh year, the staff continue to engage new community and economic development partners in the work to improve birth outcomes through addressing health across the life course.