“We have a real philosophy about the difference between ‘power over’ or ‘power for’ vs ‘power with,” said Joe Chrastil Regional Organizer for the Industrial Area Foundation (IAF) Northwest. The organization is working to promote academic and health equality and sees physical education as a way to ensure that all children are receiving an education that supports the whole child – physically and mentally. “If you want to exercise ‘power with,’ you have to engage with the people most impacted with these problems with real, engaging, and policy-setting leadership roles.
For some advocates and organizations, health equity may be a common concept that is core to their missions and practices. But for many of grassroots advocates, this phrase comes across as a vague, complex concept that takes some time to digest and then implement.
IAF Northwest, a regional network of broad-based community alliances in Washington, Oregon, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Germany, has been working on a strategy that has proven successful so far. Understanding that many of the people they interact with are new to the advocacy process, they focus on teaching one key principle: “power with,” which means leveraging your own experiences and skills because that is where the power lies.
The health equity work began within Health Equity Circles, which are comprised of student organizations across Seattle, Spokane, and Portland that are made up of students that want to join a health field in the future. The objective was to prepare students with organizing skills and concepts and to help them develop the leadership skills to become civic voices within their communities. For example, spurred by the learnings in their Health Equity Circles, students in Seattle and Spokane successfully advocated to receive credit for a health equity organizing and leadership class on their campuses.
Building on that success, IAF Northwest turned to organizing professionals who directly work with those experiencing the impact of disparities and developed the Family Medicine Residency. In the first year, residents undergo a year of organizing and leadership training, and in the following year, residents are placed in low-income clinics where they encourage patients to identify issues impacting their own well-being and guide them on how they can change their situation.
As they developed the program, Chrastil noted that getting support from the leaders of the clinics was critical. The first step was to get providers to realize clinics are a vehicle to engage people. Once that mind shift occurs and providers agree to the program, they are invited to attend the Local Leadership Institute.
“After [the training] they have a way of seeing both the importance of the shift and a practical way of engaging through building meaningful relationships rooted in people’s stories and experiences. [We] establish the glue required for the exercise of this ‘power with.’ Our model of organizing is real relationships and story-based. How do you get people to talk about their own story and experience and interpret this way of organizing through that?”
As a result of the Family Residency Program training that was supported through funding from Voices for Healthy Kids, residents have now begun working on an advocacy campaign to influence the Seattle school board to increase accountability of schools to uphold the state standard of physical education. The work is on-going, but Chrastil reminds us that “the way that people are changed in terms of their own perception of themselves through good organizing is as valuable as the policy change that can come about.”