Community members lead by improving their neighborhoods

In four neighborhoods spanning San Diego County during the last year, residents participated in projects that taught them about public-health issues through a comprehensive curriculum.

The Resident Leadership Academy (RLA) in Oceanside, Lemon Grove, Southeast San Diego, and National City helped volunteer resident-leaders increase their knowledge and leadership capacities. This training resulted in the creation of action plans suggesting environmental and systems changes that support increased physical activity and improved nutrition within those communities.

“Residents participating in this program are committed to their

Community members lead by improving their neighborhoods

community and to the children and families within their community,” said Dana Richardson, the RLA project facilitator for the San Diego-based service organization Community Health Improvement Partners.  “These residents are in normal, everyday communities interested in advancing community good, public safety, healthy food access, and walkable communities.”

Targeted neighborhoods included those with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, high concentrations of alcohol availability, few recreation facilities and higher rates of street crime—all linked to poor health outcomes.

“I have lived in Oceanside most of my life and plan on raising my children here, and that is why I joined the Resident Leadership Academy,” said Azucena Alvarez, the project’s Oceanside Community Leader. “Together, with my fellow residents, we wanted to work on all the issues that affect our community, to have a better community for our neighbors and children.”

Through the 14-week course, residents received instruction on numerous subjects, including why where you live affects your health, community building principles, leadership advocacy and policy development, land use/community planning, and healthy food systems.  One of the key components of the curriculum included skills that support collaborative work with community groups, as well as public and elected officials such as city departments, school boards, and neighborhood associations. 

“The outcome we are looking for in each of the communities is an action plan, or Community Improvement Project,” said Richardson.  “With knowledge transfer, we will be able to discuss and teach the local residents from these underserved areas new knowledge that is characteristic of public health, and create bonafide action plans which have tangible results.”

Multiple types of Community Improvement Projects have been chosen by each Academy.  In Oceanside, where the pilot RLA took place, a graduation ceremony was held on July 14, 2011, to honor the 14 residents who completed the Academy. These residents identified four community improvement projects, including a walkability project at an elementary school, safety improvements to a park, traffic calming and improvement of healthy food options at a local grocery store, and creating a public gathering environment. 

In December, several more San Diego County residents celebrated their graduation from the Resident Leadership Academy (RLA). Leaders among the 51 graduates unveiled and shared plans for the implementation of community improvement projects in National City, Lemon Grove and Southeastern San Diego.

RLA graduates will continue working with public and private institutions in their respective communities to accomplish the goals within their action plans, which aim to reduce the prevalence of chronic disease in their neighborhoods by improving public safety, healthy food access and physical activity opportunities. 

It is through resident engagement and community activities such as these that environmental and community improvements occur, which can ultimately increase our overall well-being.

By Kat Casabar