Charlotte Parent on Involving Community Leaders in Public Health Efforts

Any attempt at public health outreach is unlikely to succeed without involving community leaders, said Charlotte Parent, director of health of the New Orleans Health Department.

Any attempt at public health outreach is unlikely to succeed without involving community leaders, said Charlotte Parent, director of health of the New Orleans Health Department. She cited Hurricane Katrina as an example, and explained that it is the input of community leadership that validates government efforts and will ultimately maintain changes.

Transcript (modified)

What is the importance of incorporating community leaders in public health outreach efforts?

Anytime you develop something that you don’t involve the community in, or the leadership in that community, the chances of it succeeding are probably slim to none. New Orleans learned early on, after Katrina, that if we were going to make the changes that we needed to make, that we had to listen to the community. And people thought they were listening to the community, but the voices grew stronger after Katrina, after people had to evacuate and went to other communities, and saw the types of things that were available in those communities. They wanted to come back home, but they didn’t want to come back home to the way everything was.

And so they brought those ideas back and said, “Look, we want to be heard and we want to make sure that you all are listening to us, and putting into place some of the things that we want.” So we began to look at our health department and figure out ways that we could embrace that community, and not only embrace them but have them begin to trust us, that we were taking on the ideas that they wanted to have.

Granted, a lot of the ideas were no different than what we thought they should be, right? It gets pretty obvious that violence issues are major for our community, safety is major for our community. So while the community told us that, it basically validated, in some cases, things we already knew. What we were able to do was talk to the community about ways that were out there, evidence-based practices, that could be utilized to bring in and get their buy into.

Eventually, what we hope this leads to is the infrastructure for our health department—that no matter what leaders come in, as mayors change and council members change and that sort of thing—that the community owns it. And so when we’re gone that community is still there saying, “Nope, we want to keep that. We want to keep doing this work, these are the things that we value.” And it’s really not about the values of this health department; it’s really about the community’s value.”