Centering communities: Q&A with Dr. America Bracho Perez

Until Feb. 1, 2023, we were Group Health Foundation. This post was written under our former identity. To learn more about our new name, read our announcement here.

Community engagement is fundamental to Group Health Foundation’s mission of advancing community aspirations for a vibrant, healthy Washington. It is one of five key areas identified in our organizational learning plan to explore this year. We want to better understand: How should we think about and plan for community engagement? How do we partner with communities across the state in meaningful, authentic, and helpful ways? What are the most promising models of community-centered learning and community-driven solutions?

Dr. America Bracho Perez, who serves on Group Health Foundation’s board and leads Latino Health Access, shares ideas about community engagement from her years of doing this work. Dr. Bracho is also author of “Recruiting the Heart, Training the Brain: The Work of Latino Health Access,” a book about involving residents in shaping their own health.

Dr. America Bracho Perez

Q: How did you personally get interested in community engagement work?

A: Since I was young, I was very aware that you need to fight for what you want. I am a daughter of professors, and saw them fight for education. And, when I was working as a doctor in rural Venezuela, I saw what happens when the community is not involved. I also witnessed successes in community work. Involving people is how we move the needle, we share power, we share wealth at the table—this is the only formula to create sustainable communities.

Q: What does authentic community engagement look like and feel like?

A: People are talking about the issues and the aspirations important to them. It’s not the same three or four people, but new people—youth and adults—becoming involved. We are reaching out to neighbors and exchanging points of view. We are developing common understanding. The word ‘common’ is critical because we all have different ideas, but through conversations we come to understand our reality and how we can do something together to effect change. We are also organizing, and we are advocating. It’s not only individuals, but organizations reaching out to each other and working together. And, over time, we see the capacity of the community increasing.

Q: You wrote a book “Recruiting the Heart, Training the Brain: The Work of Latino Health Access.” Can you elaborate on what you this means and how it might be relevant for Group Health Foundation’s work?

A: First, we are recruiting a conviction, a commitment. We are recruiting the personal—if this is not personal, the heart won’t be there. Then, we train the brain in how to work together, design strategies, advocate—all with people who bring the heart.

Group Health Foundation’s mission is to improve health equity and advance community aspirations for vibrant, healthy Washington. It is impossible to do this without engaging people who have those aspirations. We can have a limited view of the reality of communities because we don’t live there or we come from privilege. We need to take time to learn their struggles, their accomplishments, their needs, and their aspirations. Participation is both a right and a responsibility. Through the community’s involvement, we are honoring their right to lead their present and their future.

Q: Why has Group Health Foundation made community engagement a priority?

A: We know that without the community we won’t be able to advance anything. It’s about a partnership with the community. The many inequities affecting our most vulnerable and marginalized communities are connected to a lack of power. Power in the sense that your voice is there, your actions are there. If we do this work without community, we’ll end up with only ideas—and without any ways of knowing what’s truly workable, or without any ways of making it happen in communities. It won’t be sustainable change.

Q: What do you foresee as potential challenges with community engagement for Group Health Foundation? What about opportunities?

A: People might say Group Health Foundation is going on a very slow track. But, we have to remember community work takes time. Inclusion takes longer, and building trust takes longer. Another potential challenge is representation in communities. Communities have their own dynamics. Sometimes we get connected to a sector, but we miss broader representation. We must try to get as much representation as possible, listening to a range of different groups and people—people of different ages, races, and life experiences. Another challenge is to stay in learning mode so that we are open to hearing new ideas. And, in the middle of all this, we must keep a sense of urgency.

At the same time, we have an incredible opportunity to do things differently—to truly support authentic community engagement that honors our values and supports big change. We have the opportunity to create space for meaningful conversations in communities, to elevate lessons, and to share what works.

Q: What are promising models of community-centered learning or community-driven solutions that Group Health Foundation can draw from?

A: I don’t think so much about models, but more about the ingredients of community work. Every day I hear of communities doing amazing things—whether it is a group of parents organizing to create recreational opportunities for their kids, or people working to reduce youth incarceration, or communities fighting for affordable housing. In all of these, the thinking and action happen together in communities. It’s moving from the individual to the collective. It’s co-learning and co-designing. It’s celebrating successes. It’s recognizing the resilience of communities, and honoring their rich history and culture. It’s the shared desire to advance an agenda, without leaving anyone behind. It’s all of these things that contribute to making a community stronger at the end of the day.

Q: What are important guiding principles that Group Health Foundation should keep in mind with respect to planning for and engaging with the community?

A: I think it’s in our own board norms, which we have been intentionally crafting over the past year. If we stay focused on our mission and our values, we are going to be respectful of communities. If we use an equity lens and practice seven generation thinking (which I have learned a lot about from our board partners), then we are valuing the wisdom of communities—considering past generations while thinking about present and future generations. And, to be in dialogue with communities, we must have conditions of authenticity. In the territory of learning, we are saying we want to learn together, be curious, assume good intention, create a space for disagreement, and show respect during these conversations. These norms and practices not only apply to our board engagement, but to community engagement.