Community Engagement Lessons for Increasing Health Equity in Your City

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As a Cities of Opportunity pilot city, Rancho Cucamonga, California is seeking to enhance its community engagement efforts and formalize its best practices to bring all voices into the decision-making processes. The National League of Cities (NLC) spoke with Erika Lewis-Huntley, management analyst for the City of Rancho Cucamonga, about the city’s goals and efforts to achieve them.

NLC: Can you walk us through Rancho Cucamonga’s approach to community engagement?

Lewis-Huntley: Authentic civic engagement requires empathy, integrity, vulnerability, and commitment to engaging community residents on city decisions that affect their lives. The city, through its Healthy RC initiative, is developing a citywide community engagement policy with a health equity framework. The strategies identified will make equitable and inclusive engagement the foundation of how the city does business. At the core of this community engagement policy is a set of systematic approaches to developing partnerships with Rancho Cucamonga’s diverse communities, which will ensure that community ideas and perspectives are included in shaping public policies, practices, projects and services.

[Learn more about Cities of Opportunity, places where all residents can reach their full potential and live healthy, productive and fulfilling lives as part of a thriving community.]

NLC: What does the citywide community engagement policy look like in practice? What guided your implementation choices?

Lewis-Huntley: The city is currently piloting new civic engagement strategies with the Los Amigos Park Project, with the ultimate goal of establishing best practices in anticipation of the upcoming General Plan update. The Los Amigos Park Project is the ideal testing ground because it is led by a multi-departmental team that has participated in comprehensive community engagement training, as well as hands-on instruction and coaching by the Institute for Local Government. The Healthy RC initiative and the community engagement policy work are housed in the City Manager’s Office. We chose the City Manager’s Office because of its comprehensive purview and support role in many city projects, as well as its dynamic relationships with all the other city departments.

NLC: If you were advising another city on implementing a comprehensive community engagement policy, what lessons would you share?

Lewis-Huntley: It is vital to have executive management from all city departments onboard and to identify the people in their departments with the most capacity and influence to implement these strategies. In Rancho Cucamonga’s experience, bringing people from all departments together face-to-face to collaborate is a powerful way to make connections and demonstrate the depth and breadth of how these departments are impacting health.

Additionally, many community organizations have a long history and deep level of trust with traditionally underrepresented groups, and therefore are vital partners for cities. Community organizations on the ground have real-time knowledge of population shifts that is sometimes more responsive than available quantitative data. These organizations can thus easily identify and connect with underrepresented groups. The buy-in arising from these partnerships, and from other civic engagement processes, can balance power, create trust and develop the capacity and community leadership that will outlast the engagement process and support plan implementation.

NLC: Why does community engagement matter to you?

Lewis-Huntley: Rancho Cucamonga is a thriving city that is becoming richer in its mix of ethnicities and cultures. This diversifying population growth requires government agencies, stakeholders and communities to work together to build a city that provides all Rancho Cucamonga residents the opportunity to be heard and ultimately achieve their full health potential.

About the Author: Anne Li is an associate for Health & Wellness in the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.