Cultivating Change: How the HealthConnect Fellowship lifted a network of advocates to improve children's health

Nov 15, 2019

Two years ago, we launched the fellowship to foster a "tipping point" towards sound policy and practice changes that would positively and equitably impact the health of Iowa's children. We invited seven health advocates to join us as the inaugural fellows.

Their journey has been inspiring, full of learning, successes and challenges, and one of the greatest impact investments Mid-Iowa Health Foundation has ever made. We are grateful for those seven fellows’ tenacity, commitment, expertise, and change-making!

This summer we took a moment to capture their journey and what they accomplished. Below is the release of our Cultivating Change report highlighting their work and our collective impact thus far. We hope this report sparks new ideas for how you approach your work or support community issues.

What the HealthConnect fellowship accomplished:

Each fellow achieved important successes for children’s health and well-being. While advancing specific issues matters, lasting systemic change is best achieved through leadership, capacity building, and strategic engagement of a community. Most fellows say the experience was “above and beyond expectations” in ways including, strengthening personal capacity, building intentional connections, and stimulating insights that moved advocacy work forward. Here are a few of the overall results from the first phase of this initiative.

A Bolder Voice on Children’s Issues

Most fellows describe having more confidence to raise their voices. They developed this strength by having time and space to prepare for moments when they had an opportunity to speak, as well as having a cohort to back them.

“Systems work can be really horribly depressing and tiring and kind of lonely, and so most people don’t want to talk about it,” says Fellow Andrea Dencklau. “Having allies with you saying, ‘I’m thinking about that same thing,’ pushes you and gives you the confidence to speak up a little more boldly.”

“With confidence, comes a bigger voice and a more inclusive voice,” says Mid-Iowa Health Foundation President Suzanne Mineck. “We are just starting to see ripples from that.”

A New Generation of Leaders

“What is important to me is not just the issues or the work. It is that that the fellowship be about building capacity, investing in people, in organizations, and in leaders. Issues come and go, but the strategy for the long haul is in building capacity,” says Mentor Rick Kozin.

Rick became involved in the fellowship while in the process of retiring from the Polk County Health Department. He was concerned about the lack of leaders coming up in the health and public health fields. The fellowship experience showed him that the fellows knew what they were doing, but they needed to see themselves as leaders in their roles. The fellowship modeled how leadership could show up in different ways beyond the traditional idea of “taking charge,” and that by facilitating and connecting with others, the fellows were leaders.

“They are the experts. That’s why they were selected for this fellowship,” says Suzanne. “We saw them as the people who could push the issues. But it’s been wonderful to see some of them step into that space where we already saw them.”

Greater Focus on Messaging

Most of the fellows felt an “aha!” moment at the Topos Partnership training when they tried to articulate the issues they were working on and couldn’t talk about their issues in a way that made sense to others. That training showed them the value of clearing out all the information they wanted to convey and to focus on what clear and concise messages would engage their audiences and unify other advocates around their issues. Many fellows noted wanting to take that approach with other issues they work on in the future.

“In hindsight, that detailed work to slow down and think about our message, that was so valuable to us and valuable to success we achieved,” says Fellow Chaney Yeast.

“My background is in research and policy analysis, not marketing and communications,” says Fellow Mary Nelle Trefz. “So taking the time and effort to develop a messaging campaign is not an area that I have focused much time or attention on until I saw the success and impact of a messaging campaign led by one of the other fellows. I quickly began to understand: It doesn’t matter if I have the perfect data point or the most compelling analysis. If my information isn’t packaged in a way that is accessible and resonates with my target audience, it will never be heard.”

A Broader Understanding of Advocacy

“With a lens on systems of oppression and institutional discrimination, it is a challenge to not be overwhelmed and defeated on how to make change in the time frame, and with limited capacity and resources available. The fellowship provides the opportunity to build the relationships and mentorship needed to figure out how to address the challenges and where to focus attention,” says Fellow Dawn Martinez Oropeza.

With time and space to think about their issues, the flexibility to shift strategies, and collaboration with other child advocates, the fellows found new opportunities, often outside of the traditional idea of lobbying legislators for policies.

Suzanne describes advocacy as seeing many different levers across many overlapping systems and how can you pull one or tweak another to make larger improvements across the entire community. “I think many of the fellows have been able to widen the lens to see those levers,” she says.

For example, some fellows built relationships with partners they wouldn’t have approached before or asked to be at certain tables making decisions about how the system works.

“The other fellows have helped me view my project goals through many different lens: A lens of strategy and a lens of opportunism, a lens of idealism and a lens of realism, and a lens of cultural humility,” says Fellow Lisa Cushatt.

Progress in a Different Way

The HealthConnect Fellowship was meant to accelerate action, create equity, and catalyze innovative solutions to the most pressing health needs of children in our community.

All of the fellows believed they moved their issues forward and made an impact on children’s health. The fellowship even taught the fellows to celebrate their success more often. Yet with ambitious goals, the fellows and MIHF felt larger-scale progress took longer and was harder than they expected.  

“I don’t think any of them will tell you they’re satisfied with their progress,” says Rick. “They should feel really good about their progress, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and I think they’re better prepared to do that, and I think there’s improved climate where they’re at.”

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