Forming Partnerships With Public Health Departments: How to Make the Connection

Tips for community organizations looking to build relationships with local public health departments.

2 minute read

November 6, 2020, 7:00 AM PST

By LM_Ortiz


BigMilan / Shutterstock

Health departments offer resources related to research capacity and data, and some fund community organizations directly. They can also act as conveners, providing connections to other government agencies or neutral ground for building alliances. There are plenty of examples of what health departments bring to partnerships to build community power and advance health equity. They can:

Conduct research and strategic planning to shift policy and framingWorking with health departments on research can provide powerful health analysis and framing for issues that your organization is working on. The Alameda County Public Health Department in California co-produced two major research projects with housing and racial justice organization Causa Justa::Just Cause that received extensive media coverage and helped drive policy changes. Rebuilding Neighborhoods, Restoring Health was one of the first reports in the country to discuss foreclosure as a health issue, while Development without Displacement focused on the health impacts of residential displacement and local policy responses. The research combined quantitative data collected by the health department with extensive focus group and interview data from people living in the neighborhoods most affected by foreclosure and displacement.

With their relationship solidified through these projects, the department continues to use its research capacity to provide objective health analysis in public testimony supporting stronger tenant protections. They’ve also changed internal practices: the department’s asthma program collaborated with code enforcement officers to identify landlords and hold them accountable for poor housing conditions that trigger asthma attacks, and “healthy home” visits now include questions about rent increases.

Use their regulatory authority—Departments have direct regulatory oversight over some issues, and community partnerships (and pressure!) can encourage them to use their authority creatively. The San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Environmental Health Branch partnered with the Chinese Progressive Association on a participatory research project about working conditions in Chinatown restaurants. The resulting report documented the prevalence of wage theft, and the Environmental Health Branch moved to incorporate compliance with labor standards into their restaurant health permitting process. One labor enforcement agency noted that restaurant owners were much more responsive to the threat of a suspended health permit than they were to labor violation fines.

In the context of COVID-19, public health departments have additional authority granted under emergency orders, and have an important responsibility not just to put it to use around issues like workplace safety, but also to ensure equitable enforcement.

They can also ...

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