How do local community power-building organizations advance health and racial equity?

Community power is the ability of communities most impacted by inequity to act together to voice their needs and hopes for the future and to collectively drive structural change, hold decision-makers accountable, and advance health equity.

For more than 20 years, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has supported community power organizations and advocacy networks that engage in grassroots organizing, particularly with people who are low-income, of color, and/or youths. The Foundation has supported communities in their power-building efforts to mitigate tobacco use and childhood obesity and, most recently, to improve community conditions and confront structural racism.

Elevating Community Power and Community Voice

As the pandemic and recent uprisings against racial injustice have laid bare, structural barriers and systemic racism remain persistent obstacles to achieving health equity. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are leading vital movements that are galvanizing their communities and seeding transformative change. Building power within communities is essential to the health and well-being of people that have endured decades of racial injustice, economic exclusion, social marginalization, and health inequities.

Low-income people and communities of color have been excluded from decision-making on the policies and practices that impact their health and prosperity, through generations of systemic exclusion and disinvestment. Our learning has shown that the people most directly affected by systemic barriers and inequities are best positioned to identify the solutions and actions needed to drive change.

That’s why community power is important to how RWJF contributes to transformative change, in a variety of areas—from housing, to healthcare, to birthing, to family caregiving. The evaluation of this work, which will center on the principles of equitable evaluation, should begin to shed light on the impact we can have in community power-building and support our learning efforts to hone our strategies.

The inequalities laid bare by COVID-19 simply flow from the existing pandemic of racism and racial violence we are witnessing today.

RWJF President and CEO Richard Besser


This effort is helping grow capacities of local organizations who organize and advocate for low-income, BIPOC community members (with a focus on youth and the South) to build power. The work is also deepening relationships, focusing collective attention on action to address health inequities, and driving grassroots solutions that dismantle structural racism. Local community power-building organizations are working with state and national partners to advance policy, narrative and systems changes across multiple issues, including housing, education, healthcare, and economic justice.

This work is supporting and building power among low-income renters of color to combat the effects of systemic racism in housing policy that fosters residential segregation and continues to drive health disparities. The effort to advance housing justice will ensure renters’ priorities and needs are being honored in local decision-making to improve housing affordability, community conditions, and residents’ wellbeing.

This effort will support historically underfunded birth justice organizations championing Black, Indigenous, and other birthing people of color. The work will build power by advancing network and coalition building, shifting narratives, amplifying and spreading solutions, and promoting policies and practices that address implicit bias and structural racism that impact maternal and infant health outcomes.

Protestors marching down Lucas-Hunt Rd. in Northern St. Louis County during the 2016 Walk for Justice. People came from throughout the county to participate in the walk, which was held in memory of Michael Brown, Jr. two years after his death.
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To end America’s maternal mortality crisis, dismantle the racism that fuels it

March of Dimes President and CEO Stacey Stewart and RWJF President and CEO Richard Besser write that we must dismantle structural racism and address health inequities to ensure that all pregnant people—regardless of skin color, income, or zip code—can have healthy pregnancies, healthy babies and the ability to thrive. That's birth justice. By prioritizing critical federal and state policy changes and centering the voices and experiences of Black, Indigenous and other people of color, we can save lives and end suffering now.

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