Healthy Communities

Reflections: Community-Centered Health Fall Convening

November 17, 2022
By: Brian Edmonds, Communications Officer

For many of us, gratitude, along with reflecting on the things that we’re thankful for, is the norm during this week and throughout the holiday season.

However, this year I was fortunate to bring in the season a little early as I was able to attend the 2022 Community-Centered Health Fall Convening, which was held in Rocky Mount. While there were many things I took away from this experience, the biggest was an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

The Fall convening is an annual event where our foundation’s Community-Centered Health grantees come together to learn and share experiences about the ongoing efforts, successes, and challenges they face in solving important issues in the communities where they live. This convening was significant for me personally as it was my first time attending the event since joining the Blue Cross NC Foundation team in 2021. The pandemic essentially halted in-person gatherings for most of us, so when the opportunity to attend this event came up, I knew I couldn’t miss it.

The Experience

“It’s a vibe.”  While the official theme of the gathering was “Coming Back Together,” I would say the unofficial theme of the convening for myself, along with most others in attendance, would probably be those three words. From the time I arrived, there was a feeling of togetherness, camaraderie, and excitement. I also have to point out that upon walking into the event center and hearing those nostalgic, cultural tunes I grew up on playing in the background throughout, was instrumental (no pun intended) in fostering a great atmosphere and making it easy for everyone to relax.

That is unless you just couldn’t resist that urge of busting a move before quickly remembering that it’s important to appear professional during business hours – or that you aren’t in your 20’s anymore, and no amount of BC Powder is going to help you with that hip or knee pain.

Brian (right) with members of his Blue Cross NC Foundation family

To be honest, I’d describe the experience much like homecoming or a family reunion, which is interesting considering the fact I’d never met many of those in attendance. But I was fortunate to engage in some great conversations, and what stood out to me right away was how easy going and down to earth everyone was. I also quickly realized that these people were making an extraordinary difference for so many individuals and families in their communities. Whether it was listening to the featured speakers or seeing the engagement in breakout group sessions, real people were talking about real problems in full transparency, and it was refreshing to hear the amazing stories of meaningful change that’s happening in places where just a few years ago, there was little hope.

“Being able to properly and authentically engage community members with lived experiences who are closest to whatever issues the communities have chosen to address in this work has been a game changer for us.”

-Donyel Barber

Making a Difference

One of those inspiring people I had the pleasure of meeting was Donyel Barber of Kintegra Health. Donyel is the lead coordinator for Healthier Highland, one of the Foundation’s first Community-Centered Health grantees.

Donyel Barber 

“Being able to properly and authentically engage community members with lived experiences who are closest to whatever issues the communities have chosen to address in this work has been a game changer for us,” said Donyel.

“For me personally, that means so much because that’s what makes this sustainable. They are at the forefront and their input is not only adhered to, but it’s valued, taken into consideration, and put into action. They’ve been equipped with many tools, not only in the health care realm but also in local government. As a result of (this initiative), they’ve become elected officials, decision makers, and committee leaders. They’re able to speak something and see it come into fruition, and it means so much to them.“

She also talked about the value in bringing everyone together, which for her, is a learning opportunity to gain knowledge and information from others. “It’s like a shot in the arm for me because you realize you’re not alone in the work you’re doing. It’s encouraging and gives the strength you need to keep going.”

As I mentioned earlier, we were in Rocky Mount, home of OIC of Rocky Mount, who would be there to support the convening. Their organization is part of the Foundation’s second cohort of grantees, which is building upon the lessons learned from the first. I was able to connect with the charismatic Reuben Blackwell, CEO, OIC Rocky Mount, who shared his thoughts about the impact of what this group of community coalitions means to their organization and also North Carolina.

“The collaborations that we have been able to build, not just locally, but a network of like-minded people across the state that Blue Cross NC Foundation has opened us up to has been extremely valuable. The benefit of having peer collaborators has been incredible as far as keeping us encouraged, helping us to remain focused on our work, and creating metrics beyond our individual organizations or even our collective affiliations,” said Reuben.

“We’ve been able to spread this out throughout the community so that they can be able to benchmark the success that it has achieved by working together with us.  I don’t feel we would have been able to design that without having intentional, thoughtful, skillful support, along with consulting teams, and ‘heart’ partners.”

Reuben Blackwell

Anyone who’s familiar with Reuben will confirm that he exudes enthusiasm and optimism that makes you smile, and it’s clear that the impact of his drive and positive outlook has been integral to OIC Rocky Mount as they continue to make amazing strides in the community.

“Community-Centered Health strengthened the work that the community had been leading in Rocky Mount.  We’ve had voices that have been able to be strengthened and encouraged. It has really amplified their voices so that their power could manifest. The very real, tangible results that occurred were policy shifts because the community took these issues to the city council and brought data driven recommendations that refocused attention on affordable housing, community wealth building, and bringing intergenerational support in places that been devastated because of lack of investment and attention. It’s resulted in programs that have redirected public funding in the tune of tens of millions of dollars into neighborhoods that have been disinvested for 50-70 years. We have a whole movement in our city that looks at livability and quality of life for the people who are already here, not raising taxes and moving people out so other people can come in. It’s been incredible. ”

“Shared prosperity is not anti-American. Shared prosperity should be the point of America.”

Reuben Blackwell

Reuben said something that really stood out to me, “Shared prosperity is not anti-American. Shared prosperity should be the point of America.” It was a powerful statement and a sentiment I share wholeheartedly. I resisted the urge to shout out, “PREACH!”

Josie Williams, Executive Director, Greensboro Housing Coalition, whose sharp humor was responsible for my sides hurting throughout the two days, talked about the return of the convening and the impact of Community-Centered Health on their organization and community. Greensboro Housing Coalition was one of the first three grantees funded as part of this work.

Josie Williams

“The value in Community-Centered Health has been a critical foundation to all things related to our equitable community changes. It laid the framework for us to understand how to work on policy, systems, and environmental changes. The value of us coming together at our annual convening gives us an opportunity to come together after being away from each other for two years due to the pandemic.  And although we’ve come together virtually, there’s nothing like the power collective energy when we come together like this. It gives us the opportunity to collaborate and have thought partners across different sectors,” said Josie.

“We all have similar challenges, and we all desire to see equitable change within our communities, so when we all come together to work within a system that allows us to address the changes that are most needed, I think that not only makes our neighborhoods and communities better, but it also makes North Carolina, the state, better.”

You see what I mean? So much to be thankful for…amazing work being done by amazing people, and the opportunity to experience it all first hand – if only for a couple of days.

Donyel, Reuben, and Josie were just three of the inspiring individuals I was able to connect with during my time in Rocky Mount. There were so many others, those doing life-changing work in communities across the state.

It’s one thing to say what needs to be done and hope for the best. It’s another thing to actually create the change you hope to see. The work isn’t easy by any means, and they don’t receive much fanfare, but they are the everyday heroes who roll up their sleeves so that you and I can live in communities that are better, healthier, and ultimately a place we can all be proud of and thankful for.

I’m already looking forward to seeing them again at next year’s Convening.


About the Author

Brian Edmonds is the Communications Officer for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation.  Learn more about Brian.