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Place Matters presenter: 'Listening up front' key to improving health


October 5, 2018

David Toland says communities must ‘listen up front’ to make change

PORTLAND, Ore.--Three words sum up Thrive Allen County’s success in fostering a sense of belonging in the rural Kansas community and creating a shared vision of health: know your people.

"People that are engaged in community health work need to understand the particular mores and priorities of communities they serve," says David Toland, Thrive Allen County’s president and CEO, and a featured speaker at the 2018 Oregon Place Matters Conference this month in Portland. "They need to understand the language of their residents, but it also means being quiet and doing a lot of listening up front."

That up-front listening helped Allen County earn the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s prestigious Culture of Health Prize in 2017. The county was honored for engaging residents in sometimes-difficult "community conversations" about poverty, hunger and homelessness, according to RWJF. The county also increased health care access by lowering the uninsured rate and building a new hospital and clinics. And it added more ways for residents to be active, such as constructing new biking and hiking trails.

Collaborative community-wide efforts to improve health in one Oregon county this year also caught the attention of RWJF Culture of Health Prize judges. Klamath County was recognized for its work to boost high school graduation rates for all students, build its skilled local workforce through job training, and attract new businesses. Law enforcement and mental health agencies have worked together to provide alternatives to incarceration and build stronger police-community relations, and bilingual community health workers and a rural health care residency program have teamed up to remove health care barriers.

In addition, according to RWJF, Klamath community leaders and organizations are working to address housing challenges by incentivizing exterior home improvements by residents in low-income neighborhoods through mini-grants. And geographic information system mapping is helping local leaders develop more trails and green spaces.

For Thrive, Allen County’s economic development office, change began when community members recognized the importance of a common vision for improving health.

"We have to accept that we’re too small and the bench is too shallow for us to be tribal about our work," Toland said. "It can’t be, ‘I live in this town and what happens down the road doesn’t matter to me.’ No, we’re all in this together."

A shared vision of health has meant "making sure we have high-quality public schools," and that "there’s a community college in this county that’s really important not only in making sure folks who want to go on to get a bachelor’s degree can do that, but also so CNAs or people running a day care can get trained." It’s also about ensuring the built environment offers ways for people to make healthy choices, such as requiring that new development projects have easy bicycle and pedestrian access.

"We didn’t start by building a hospital," Toland said, "we started by hearing people say they’re worried about what happens to them if they have a heart attack. We started by listening to people’s hopes and fears and dreams and addressing actionable steps."

For information about the 2018 Oregon Place Matters Conference, visit the conference website.

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 Media contact

Jonathan Modie

OHA External Relations


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