By Jeannie Howard
Residents of San Pablo, or anyone else for that matter, most likely would have never imagined that the small—often labeled as an “underdog”—city would have been thrust into a national dialogue on community health. But, that is exactly what has happened to the city of San Pablo since being named one of the recipients of the highly acclaimed Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Culture of Health prize in September of 2017. “Winning this has just been incredible!” said Leslay Choy, general manager of the San Pablo Economic Development Corporation (EDC), a San Pablo based non-profit that has been proactively working to create and expand economic opportunities for all of the city’s residents. “San Pablo is generally viewed in the county as being small and poor,” Choy expressed. “Yes, we have challenges, but we are now a part of national dialogues and it goes to show that it just takes time and effort.”
Since 1972, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been solely dedicated to the improvement and promotion of health. As the nation’s largest philanthropic organization, RWJF believes that people’s health is directly related to a number of factors beyond medical care, such as the quality and availability of housing, employment, schooling, and even the availability of natural open spaces in a community. Through the Culture of Health Prize, the foundation celebrates exemplary communities that are committed to creating an environment of inclusive and sustainable health for all of their residents. For nearly four years, winners of this coveted prize have been communities that are large and small, urban and rural, and have demonstrated how, by connecting city leadership, economic development, schooling, housing, and, as San Pablo demonstrates, even law enforcement, they are creating effective multi-pronged approaches to overcoming challenges once deemed insurmountable to improve the health of their whole community. In addition to being nationally recognized, winning cities receive a cash prize of $25,000 to use toward the continuation and further development of successful programs.
Having come off of the excitement of receiving the National Civic League’s All American Cities award in 2014, Choy said that the EDC began to dig deeper into exploring how engaging people in their local economy has a direct effect on the health of a community. “If people are not going to work locally, if they don’t have paid time off, if they don’t have benefits, they are not able to participate in the health and welfare of their family without missing out on pay or losing their job,” she said. “The EDC has been arguing that by improving a person’s ability to earn income and stay locally, they can better maintain their community relationships and take care of their family, and that can actually influence the health of their community as well.” With this goal set, it only seemed appropriate for the EDC to apply for the RWJF Culture of Health Prize. As Choy described, the EDC is, in many ways, a storyteller for the community and through applying for this prize, it was the non-profit’s opportunity to share San Pablo’s story. “So many folks have their heads down working hard and they don’t even see the incredible story that is unfolding within their own community,” she said. “We may be small and scrappy, but the way we are working together is quite different and we just wanted a chance to tell our story.”
In addition to the modest cash prize and having a platform to share San Pablo’s story, the EDC was deeply motivated to compete for this national distinction because of the snowballing effect it can have on their community. “Yes, some cities would rather be handed a quarter of a million dollars,” said Choy, “but with this award, you get so much more than money.” The added benefits for San Pablo have been the opportunity to be a part of a national dialogue on building healthy, safe, and equitable communities. “Now San Pablo is forever on a national map,” she said. “It is important to be a part of this larger conversation, and we are excited at the potential this opportunity has.”
According to Choy, there are three distinct phases to the RWJF Culture of Health Prize application process. “It is such a huge competition and you go through a long, multi-stage process,” she described. In the fall of 2016, the EDC first learned of the award and got to work on the first phase of the application—a concise essay and amateur video answering why they were applying and the initiatives and accomplishments that support their reasons—which was due in the first week of November 2016. “Our thesis was that engagement in the local economy, meaningful engagement, is everything to the health of a community,” described Choy. Nearly 211 communities from across the country submitted applications during this initial phase.
It was not until the following month that the EDC received the invitation to submit phase two—a detailed itinerary of who RWJF representatives would talk to, what they would discuss, and what they would see in the community if they were to visit—which was due by the end of January 2017. Only 37 of the original applicants were selected for this phase. To the surprise of EDC, they received the call in March that San Pablo was one of eleven communities to move onto phase three, a site visit that would occur in the first week of May 2017.
“In the site visit we had to solidify everything we detailed in the previous phases,” Choy said. “At any point in time there is so much going on in San Pablo, so we chose to not stage anything for the visit.” Admittedly, this was a time when she was thankful that San Pablo is such a small city because the site visit scheduling was tight. During the visit, RWJF representatives conducted a community conversation where residents were able to openly express their experiences in the various programs and initiatives the EDC and the city had implemented. “I was able to hear voices that I had never heard before,” shared Choy. “It was fascinating and rewarding to be able to sit and listen, like a fly on the wall, to that conversation and to hear people talk about their experiences going through the programs.”
During late June Choy received the call back from RWJF that San Pablo was one of eight communities to win the Culture of Health Prize. “I got the news but I was not allowed to tell anybody,” she said. “I was doing the quiet squealing in my office and my feet were doing a happy dance under my desk.” Keeping the joyous news a secret until the official announcement in mid-September 2017 was torture, Choy said.
Since making the official announcement, the EDC has been busy spreading the word to everyone in every part of the city to keep the momentum of the award going. The EDC is planning on having an official bringing-home-the-prize celebration during the city’s 4th of July event this year. “This may be a one-time award, but it’s about propelling San Pablo forward,” shared Choy. “It is about looking at where we want to go; not just about the immediate next thing, but about the long-term vision.” According to Choy, the residents of this humble and hardworking community have been very surprised at the national award and the youth are excited.
The large goal going forward, according to Choy, is to continue to “cultivate the leaders of tomorrow and to build greater community engagement overall.” This first step for this will be through a series of community forums the EDC is planning. “We are going to make sure the forums have professional facilitation, translations, daycare, and food,” she described. “We will be going out to the community to spaces that work for residents, to make it very accessible.” Additionally, Choy described ways the EDC and the city will further support local entrepreneurs and small businesses, such as through revolving loan programs. “We can help them with technical advice for gathering everything needed for loans and we are also going to be able to make very low-interest loans,” she said. “The whole idea is that the loans made are to companies that can demonstrate that they are going to be able to retain and even hire new employees through the loans.” Schools are also on the EDC’s radar as an area to help improve outcomes for the city from the beginning.
Choy acknowledges that the Culture of Health Prize is not going to solve the challenges San Pablo faces but that it is a tool to further the steps already in process. “We want to hold onto our community and if we do not engage people, if we do not show them that there is opportunity here, then our youth will leave and our families will leave,” she admits. “So, we have a lot of building ahead, and we will keep looking at what we can do to push San Pablo forward toward the long-term visions.”