Turning to One Another to Reverse the Diseases and Deaths of Despair

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By Tyler Norris

Almost three decades ago, while serving at the National Civic League helping grow the healthy communities movement under the leadership of the late John Parr and Chris Gates, we pioneered new approaches to improve health and quality of life by actively engaging community residents alongside civic leaders in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.

Former San Antonio Mayor and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros was the League board chair when he wrote an article for the National Civic Review in which he advanced the theme of “citizen democracy.” Building on the mandate of the League founders in the previous century, and his predecessor-chair HEW Secretary and Independent Sector founder John Gardner, Secretary Cisneros articulated the viewpoint that representative democracy could work at the national level, but that at the local level, community residents needed to be directly engaged, debating the issues, finding solutions, and working alongside elected and civic officials to get the right things done, the right way.

At the time, public-private partnerships and blue-ribbon panels were all the rage. But what Secretary Cisneros hit on was the missing factor: community residents using asset-based approaches to shape the conversation and lead action on the ground. Out of this work a new generation of inclusive civic activism was initiated, and the healthy/sustainable/resilient communities movement soon spread to over 1,000 locales. (For more information on the history of the movement, see this National Civic Review article.)

In the twentieth century, lifespans increased by nearly 23 years. An incredible gain, even as profound disparities persisted by race, ethnicity and class.  Now, the nation faces a renewed challenge, as lifespans have reversed and are now getting shorter, driven primarily by increases in the diseases and deaths of despair.

Almost as if a healthy immune response, once again we see a new generation of civic engagement emerging—in the face of toxic federal partisanship and leadership dysfunction.  Communities and regions are coming together to creatively address the underlying causality, building trans-partisan alliances and co-benefit partnerships that cross differences of party, ideology, geography and demographics to implement common-sense actions that benefit people’s lives.

If ever there was a critical time for the mission of the National Civic League, it is now. To further the work started by NCL and building on the healthy communities and related social movements, Well Being Trust is supporting the development of work around the nation aimed at reversing these recent trends -- and creating vibrant communities that assure equitable opportunity for all to realize their fullest potential for well-being.

Now being advanced by more than 75 diverse communities and national organizations – this work for Well Being in the Nation is rooted in seven vital conditions for intergenerational health and well-being: Humane Housing; Basic Needs for Health and Safety; Reliable Transportation; Belonging and Civic Muscle; Stable Environment; Meaningful Work and Wealth; and Lifelong Learning.

From Seattle to Atlanta, and Pine Ridge to New York City, signs of promise emerge—and the national partisan divide fades away in routine community life, especially where people work together to address common challenges with practical solutions. Well Being Trust is actively partnering and investing to deepen these connections —  convening for shared learning; building relationships and alliances; and elevating community successes.

Underneath these proof-points of possibility, and essential to turning the tide on the diseases and deaths of despair, is a more personal element—the question of who we must be as humans in relationship to each other. This includes “being there” for one another; serving whenever and wherever we can; and, for those of us in leadership roles, holding ourselves and our organizations accountable for impact at scale.

We must turn to one another

Every one of us is touched by suffering and every one of us is essential to the solution. There’s no clinical protocol, no community program, no governmental policy, no philanthropic grant that can substitute for compassionate care and radical inclusion. Recovery and well-being begin with each of us.

In one recent nationwide study from Cigna, nearly 50 percent of respondents reported that they feel alone or left out always or sometimes. So, check in with the people in your life, the people you see every day. Ask someone how they’re doing. Ask them how they’re really doing.

We must serve where we are

Every day, we are given opportunities in our communities to serve. In our homes, in our schools and workplaces, in faith settings, and in neighborhood gathering places, we can work together to ensure every person experiences inclusion, meaningful opportunities, and pathways to realize their fullest potential.

We must hold ourselves accountable to impact

Good intentions are valuable, but we have reached the point where we must not only do good things—we must be accountable for outcomes. This is especially the case for those of us with leadership roles in philanthropy, government, health care, business, community development, and the civic sphere—who are given the privilege and power to ensure that organizational practices, the public policies we support, and the way we invest support well-being for all. We must apply our actions with sufficient dose and comprehensiveness to have a population level impact. The age of tinkering must end as we all step up and lead with courage.

In short, to turn the tide on poor health outcomes as we approach our 250th birthday as a nation—we must bring ourselves, our organizations, and our communities fully to bear—to ensure that all the actors and forces of change are working together to produce the vital conditions that allow everyone to be well and thrive.

Tyler Norris, MDiv is CEO Well Being Trust. From 1990-1995, he led Civic Assistance at the National Civic League.

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