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March 2024

Centering Community Wisdom in a Participant Designed Invest Health Convening

Illustrator Brandon Black, from Drawnversation, captured snippets and quotes from the panels.

In late November 2023, over 200 people from small to mid-sized U.S. cities converged in Nashville to embark on a journey that differed from the typical structure of a conference: the participants co-planned the event from the very beginning.

As a program planning and implementation intermediary, Reinvestment Fund is experienced in building a strong agenda and inviting external experts to provide remarks. Following a playbook from past convening design might make it easier to ensure fidelity to the program goals but doesn’t always align with desired experience of the attendees and runs counter to the “nothing about us, without us” ethos that has guided the program since 2016. Invest Health’s city teams have been at the core of how each intervention is planned, from requests for proposals to webinars and evaluations. For Invest Health’s first in-person gathering since 2018, collaborating closely with city team partners and centering the powerful resilience and expert insights that have emerged from within the Invest Health community remained central to the program.

Learning from the Wisdom in the Room

In early 2023, Invest Health city teams advised on program activities and were invited to contribute on a planning committee for a national convening to be held in Nashville. The aim was to leverage their collective expertise to develop a valuable learning and peer exchange opportunity in Nashville. Leaders from nine cities volunteered to meet biweekly until the convening. The advisors provided invaluable input on numerous components of the Invest Health program so that the programmatic supports would more accurately reflect their needs.

From the start, their candor in articulating the activities that would add value to their work were clear: give us space to ‘refill our cup’ and recover from the traumas of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, discuss racial violence within a supportive community, share learnings across cities, and explore the city of Nashville. It was clear the advisors had professional and lived experience that made them ‘the experts’ in the room and everyone agreed they should be the focal point of the convening.

The planning committee delved into what Invest Health teams valued most during previous convenings, discussed the challenges brought about by the COVID pandemic, and celebrated the unique opportunities presented by being a part of the Invest Health learning community.

Attendees gather in a peer-led breakout session.

The convening agenda was grounded in previous evaluation learnings and focused primarily on peer learning exchange in small groups structure, supplemented by expert facilitated learning exchange spaces, structured networking and local Nashville site visits. The peer learning exchange included topics such as: learnings from teams on how to invest in places moving forward; leveraging data to advance community development; and cross-city collaborations in systems change.

Reinvestment Fund also led discussions on combining different sources of capital, expanding access to early childhood education, and increasing food retail investment innovation, while connecting the aligned work of Reinvestment Fund’s business lines of Programs, Lending, and Policy Solutions in Nashville for a panel discussion at Fisk University. Session discussions were also led by partners from other initiatives on aligning partners and impact for systems change; healing, trauma & racial equity post-COVID outbreak; and building from community strengths.

Highlights from Peer-led Panels:

Some breakout sessions featured round-table room setups, allowing attendees to converse and learn together.

With over 15 peer-led panels and small group discussions at the convening, attendees had a diverse selection of topics to explore, but indicated appreciation for sessions such as:

  1. Aligning Partners & Impact for Systems Change: Facilitated by leaders from three Invest Health cities from Bloomington (IL), Napa (CA), and Missoula (MT), this breakout panel emphasized building trusting relationships with community partners, engaging with local hospitals’ community health needs assessment staff, and understanding the social determinants of health.
  2. Braiding and Blending Capital: Experts from Reinvestment Fund and a leader from the Hartford (CT) Invest Health team conducted peer-learning sessions to share resources, experiences, and best practices to overcome common capital access challenges in small to midsized cities.
  3. Healing Trauma & Racial Equity “Post-COVID:” Invest Health city team leaders from Riverside (CA) and the Build Healthy Places Network guided this roundtable discussion, highlighting the importance of honesty in addressing trauma, creating safe spaces for conversations on racial inequity, and the necessity of trust-building. Participants also discussed the REPAIR Framework for Community-Institution Solidarity in Healing publication.

Impressions from Nashville

Convening attendees praised the peer-learning format and emphasized the importance of building strong networks for complex problem solving. A post-event survey provided powerful insights into the ‘wisdom in the room’ approach. One attendee noted that the convening didn’t feel like a “top-down conference” but that “the group is functioning more like a learning collaborative.” Said one attendee:

The problems we face in my city are being faced by cities across the US. It was really interesting to have that nationwide scope, and that was a new experience for me. Everyone seemed very eager to collaborate and share information so I feel like Invest Health really is building a strong culture across the cities.”

Local Nashville poet and artist Stephanie Pruitt Gaines gave an opening keynote on The Art of Community Building.

The Nashville convening highlighted the power of collaboration and community expertise in driving meaningful change. One of the benefits of an initiative with a national, cross-sector scope is the deep diversity of experience present in the room. Over 25 members of Invest Health city teams stepped up to lead panels and breakout sessions during the convening.

A Culture Beyond Collaboration

Invest Health city teams submitted videos showcasing their work and community. The videos were shown throughout the programmed portions of the convening.

At Reinvestment Fund, we think there is power in learning from the voices of those closest to the work to guide the conversation, actions, and solutions. It not only fosters an environment of collaboration but creates a culture of care.

Seeing consistently positive feedback about the way the convening made attendees feel was encouraging. Attendees repeatedly described feeling refreshed and re-energized after authentic, empathetic engagement with their peers:

“How incredibly nourishing it is to spend time with people “in the trenches” in small and mid-size cities in a setting designed for inspiration and connection.  It’s the best professional self-care I will ever experience.”

The Invest Health Nashville Convening serves as an example of what can happen when you center the leaders of communities. The success of this peer-learning approach stands out prominently when reflecting on the Nashville convening. The model not only fostered deep engagement but also showcased the value of peer learning beyond an educational exchange.

Future convening organizers can learn from the planning process Invest Health undertakes with intention to authentically engage communities. As Invest Health cities continue to build capacity by co-planning for the 2024 collaboration grants, the model of enabling city team leaders to steer resources and discussions in response to their communities’ needs offers a path toward empowerment and systems change.

About the Authors

Jacob Kraybill

Jacob is the Senior Program Associate for Social Determinants of Health Programs at Reinvestment Fund. He works with the national Invest Health teams and regional Building Healthier, More Equitable Communities (BHEC) in New Jersey program initiatives. With over 10 years of experience working in the nonprofit, campaign, and healthcare sectors, Jacob is dedicated to building a more just and equitable world. Before joining the Reinvestment Fund, Jacob worked to bridge the gaps between the health and community development sectors and developed & launched the Principles for Building Healthy and Prosperous Communities at the Build Healthy Places Network. Previously he worked at the Public Health Institute, as well as five years at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health as a communications and public relations consultant, where he coordinated people, logistics, and contracts. Jacob’s professional work is rooted in community service. He graduated from Lesley University with a B.A. in Global Studies.

Leah Rusenko

Leah is the Program Manager for Social Determinants of Health at Reinvestment Fund. She works with the national Invest Health and regional Building Healthier, More Equitable Communities (BHEC) program initiatives. She brings nearly a decade of experience in community health and philanthropy in both local and international arenas. She is passionate about the intersection of urban health and sustainable development. Her professional background includes managing place-based initiatives, coordinating state-wide cross-sector collaborations, overseeing large grant portfolios, and building a research institute for health equity. Most recently, she led the Independence Blue Cross Foundation team in strategic development, execution, and assessment of the Foundation’s programs and activities. Ms. Rusenko holds a Bachelor of Science in International Health from Georgetown University.