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Community-Centered Innovation for a Well City

February 15, 2023 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongMethodReinvestment

In 2017, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia began thinking about how to address food and financial insecurity in Philadelphia. With the support of Billy Penn and several other partners, they launched the Full City Challenge, an incubator pitch competition that provided funding to startup organizations that build on Philadelphia’s world-class food industry and support those in need. With a proven concept – community engagement, public-private partnership, and grassroots incubation –  Full City supported Hospitality Together/College Together with the $5,000 grand prize and The Rebel Market/Rebel Ventures with the $2,500 People’s Choice Award, selected by the more than 150 community members in attendance.

2019 Full City Challenge People’s Choice Winner: Rebel Market (courtesy photo)

But what do effective partnerships and innovation in the civic space look like?

That’s what Independence Blue Cross has been asking itself. In 2019, the company recognized Millennials’ health as a crisis and wanted to engage the community to find innovative solutions, because they understand the issues best and are in the best position to address them. To that end, the company turned to the Economy League, which could build on the experience of the Full City Challenge to create an incubator to develop and validate community-based solutions to address and improve millennial physical and mental health issues.

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Victor Caraballo, M.D., Vice President of Quality Management at Independence Blue Cross, said they found that “this challenge platform [engaged] the community in a meaningful way and allows us to understand their thoughts on good interventions that we could employ, the idea that you can try to design different systems without the input from the people those systems are supposed to serve, just doesn’t make any sense. And trying to understand the negative impact of different things without talking to the people who are experiencing them doesn’t make sense either. So we found that the Full City challenge [which would become the “Well City Challenge’] was a great way to penetrate the city and be able to engage and get the input we needed to develop better solutions.”

Out of 105 community applicants, 15 finalists were selected to participate in a multi-week incubator where they were taught how to develop a business plan, refine their storytelling, and match with advisors to help them grow. With the engagement of 1,000 community members and more than 3,000 votes on People’s Choice, Hey, Auntie! won the grand prize of $50,000. The idea is the brainchild of Nicole Kenney, who on her personal journey discovered how the various social determinants of health lead to the burden black women bear and the importance of alleviating that burden through outreach, understanding, and resources.

Since then, she has spent time listening more closely to better understand the problem and figure out where Hey, Auntie! can have the greatest impact and provide the best opportunities to build. Most importantly, she has recognized that safety is paramount for Black women, and she has spent time building trust and introducing community-building features, such as Lila quarters, which are informal opportunities for women across ages and stages of life to connect women over 50 with women under 50. While she realizes that she would have worked to solve the problem without this initiative, Nicole feels that the Well City Challenge gave her the boost and support she needed to get it done easier and faster. “As a black woman,” she states,” because we are so used to carrying everything ourselves and not asking for help, they have given me the safe space to really do something big, and they have really supported me in that. I will be forever grateful to them for that. I am forever grateful to them for the resources, the mentors, and the investment.”

Though participants like Nicole are grateful, and voting competitions can be ineffective, Jeff realized that between the lack of follow-on support after the challenge and the lack of community engagement due to Covid, there is more work to be done. The result: The Well City Challenge 2.0, which was created in partnership with Independence Blue Cross and Accelerate Health Equity (AHE) and has evolved into a six-phase challenge that begins with the community through listening sessions to determine focus, and then moves through a call for ideas, an incubator, a pitch event, an accelerator, and a pilot and evaluation phase.

While maternal health equity was the original concept theme, a landscape analysis showed other organizations were working towards solutions and interventions. Instead of following that traditional route of duplication, partnering with AHE, 2.0 focuses on an underserved area – heart and mind health. Between cardiovascular disease and heart attacks being the leading causes of death in Philadelphia disproportionately affecting populations of color, and mental health being discussed with more urgency, the challenge team knew this was an area where they would be able to really connect with the community and learn from them about their solutions.

With this focus, Well City 2.0 kicked off in August 2022 with community listening sessions. Erica Dixon, PhD, Project Director for AHE, went into the sessions with the belief that “every individual is an expert on their own needs. And it doesn’t take a physician at Penn saying what a neighborhood needs, it takes physicians at Penn listening to what communities are saying. Across the city, every institution needs to listen to the citizens of the neighborhoods that surround institutions… communities are experts on their own needs, and often communities and community members have found solutions that would help them with their problems, but they’re under-resourced and couldn’t invest in their own communities. There’s an opportunity here for us to help them and work with them to identify and foster projects that could be really successful and that the Economy League can support [through the challenge], particularly in the areas of mental health and cardiovascular health.”

During the listening session, the challenge team was open and willing to change direction if communities felt the focus should be on something else; ultimately, the communities’ insights led to three proposal focus areas: Creating Community & Social Connection, Breaking Barriers: Equitable Access to Nutrition & Care, Creating Safe Spaces: Safety in our Streets, Homes & Communities.

It will take some time to measure the effectiveness of the challenge’s innovation and partnership and see how the final solutions impact community agency and needs, but Jeff believes the Well City Challenge innovation is the solution to civic problems. “Philadelphia sometimes struggles for a variety of reasons to do things innovatively in the civic space” he explains. “Part of it is because our philanthropic community is so weak and disorganized. Part of it is also because we come from a Quaker culture where innovation and doing things differently are kind of frowned upon.”

While the Well City Challenge may not be the perfect solution, it does provide a space for people to learn and fail, as well as partnerships and resources that can lead to tangible, community-driven solutions that improve mental health and cardiovascular health. We are excited to see how Challenge 2.0 impacts the civic space and how our institutions can leverage more innovative practices to support organizations and community members working for change.

If you have an idea, applications are open now through Friday, March 3 for Philadelphians to submit their ideas.

Have ideas on how our business, philanthropic, and government,  institutions can better support our communities? Share your thoughts here!

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