Denise Holter and Dani Singerman and their neighbors in North Hartford, Connecticut, have a vision of a community where everyone can thrive. In the bright, healthy future they see, their town has
Healthy food access and a transit-accessible, affordable supermarket with health-promoting services.
Fewer liquor stores, sources of unhealthy food, and other health-restricting goods and services.
Connection to green spaces in and around Hartford via biking and walking paths.
A feeling of safety among neighbors.
Thriving Black- and Brown-owned businesses.
Healthy housing residents can afford and thriving homeownership.
A vibrant community center.
Holter chairs and Singerman directs communications and advocacy for Healthy Hartford Hub’s Community Action Task Force (CATF), a group of North Hartford residents working to make real the vision of a wellness center anchored by a full-service grocery store. That’s something the community now lacks.
Singerman knows what communities lose when people have to spend too much time or money trying to find healthy food for their families because she’s been there. But the grocery store and Healthy Hartford Hub are just the start of a long journey, she says. “To have quality of life, you need quality of food. If we don’t have quality of food, how can we have quality of life that we can be proud of for our children?”
With support from Wellville and InvestHealth, two initiatives that support selected communities as they journey toward health justice, TheCaseMade has worked with Holter, Singerman, and other members of the CATF to hone their CaseMaking. Here are some of the things we learned together about how community advocates can build public will for systems change they’ve long wanted to see:
Always start by listening to what the community needs. Grassroots community activists are uniquely positioned to listen to their neighbors and appeal to their aspirations for what their community could look and feel like. At the same time, they understand the impatience many may feel in a community that’s been deliberately denied opportunity because of historic and ongoing policies.
“I hate when people come into the city and tell us what we need, as opposed to listening to what the community needs,” Singerman says. “To me it was refreshing that CaseMaking isn’t about telling people ‘what we’re going to do.’”
Even people deeply tied to a community need tools, training, and skills to build public will for solutions. Holter says learning how to put the 10 Strategic CaseMaking principles into action “takes ‘kitchen table conversations’ to another level by taking the mystery out of how effectively to engage our neighbors for sustainable and positive change.”
CaseMaking transforms such conversations into something actionable and engaging, she says. “The actions we’re striving for are critical to the health of our community, so we don’t want to hit and miss. We want our efforts to bear fruit.”
Strong data and storytelling feed CaseMaking. North Hartford has a deep well of information in the form of a years-long resident-led, community-based participatory research project coordinated by Kristen Cooksey Stowers, assistant professor in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Allied Health Sciences. The researchers gathered stories, survey data, quotes, and pictures to tell a bigger story of neighborhood resilience and envision a future of thriving together as a result of community and economic development for health and equity.
“Resident-led participatory research approaches and Strategic CaseMaking are twin souls,” Cooksey Stowers says. “They’re two tools that should be in the toolkits of community-led initiatives.”
Tell people what they lose if they sit on the sidelines. Holter says this principle of CaseMaking helped the CATF frame the resident-led research when they first presented it publicly last fall.
“In the past we could talk ad nauseum about what was wrong and why,” she says. “We switched it and said, ‘Look what we’ll lose if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity now.’ We’re presenting the same information, same lack of resources, but with the mindset of ‘look what our community has to gain by us coming together.’ Those of us living with the conditions don’t need more definition of the conditions. What we need is a way to address the conditions. And we do that by instilling hope and a vision for the future instead of just focusing on what it’s like now.”
Tell the story of ‘us.’ “Strategic CaseMaking has helped us figure out who we’re trying to target, what needs and issues they have, their loss aversion,” Singerman says. “I always looked at myself as one of the target people. But now we’re thinking about how to reach youth, seniors, government officials, the media.”
Holter says other community groups were an early audience the CATF needed to make its case to. “Folks didn’t know who we were. We had to make the case that we weren’t in competition for resources. We wanted to work in partnership with them so we could all reach our shared goals. By framing our narrative and conversation in that way, we’ve had some significant tangible results in that area: relationships, partnerships, collaborations. And friendships.”
The goal is an inclusive story that highlights resilience, spurs hope for the future, and gets people—from residents, to politicians, to business owners—ready to take action alongside the CATF.