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How GenUnity Transformed Everyday Residents into Health Equity Change Agents

"In this incredibly resource-rich city, we still have these persistent challenges. We have people dying before they should. We should all care about this," expressed Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, Executive Director of the Boston Public Health Commission. She was reacting to a report that uncovered a jarring fact: Bostonians living just two miles apart have a 23-year gap in life expectancy.

Despite the starkness of this reality, or how obvious it may seem that we should care about these gaps, the complexity and intersectionality of the social issues contributing to these health disparities often discourage people from taking action and making positive changes.

But within this intricate web of challenges, GenUnity’s innovative approach to civic leadership and Health Equity program are making a difference by bringing everyday Bostonians together to drive change and co-create a healthier future for everyone.

The impact of GenUnity's Health Equity program is evident in the stories of past program members like Helen Liu, Nneka Hall, Kathy Henriquez, and Xavier Hubbard. These individuals demonstrate that with the right support and tools, we can make great strides in solving tough societal issues like health equity. Here are their stories.

Diverse Paths, Shared Purpose

GenUnity’s Health Equity program design recognizes diversity as a strength; individuals from all personal and professional stages can contribute to advancing health equity.

Helen, Xavier, Kathy, and Nneka came from different walks of life, each driven by unique motivations to join the Health Equity program. Despite these differences, they all shared a singular goal: advancing health equity.

Helen, a Somerville, MA resident and healthcare consultant at Vynamic, understood firsthand the challenges of driving positive change at the local, much less state and national level. When she joined our 2022 Health Equity program cohort, her goal was to become part of a community where she could make a meaningful impact on complex and persistent health equity problems.

Driven by a sense of urgency after witnessing the disparities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kathy, an organizer in Boston, joined the 2022 cohort to understand how various systems influenced health equity in her community.

Nneka, a maternal health advocate, stumbled on GenUnity through a social media post. Intrigued by the program's potential to explore health equity opportunities, she took a chance and applied for the 2022 cohort.

On the other hand, Xavier, a research engineer at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, found his way to GenUnity through his partner, Anja Young, a former program participant. He was inspired to join the 2023 Health Equity cohort by his own healthcare challenges and the loss of his father, who had “had a poor relationship with healthcare.” He aimed to bridge the gap between engineering and healthcare with practical solutions, echoing GenUnity's goal of improving access to healthcare for underserved communities.

With each cohort, these individuals embarked on a journey of community building, delving deeper into the complexities of health equity and experiencing personal and professional growth — all with the goal of advancing health equity in their communities.

The Power of Community

Change is most potent when people from different backgrounds unite to “build trust, collective knowledge, and power.” But various barriers, ranging from segregation to a lack of civic learning, too often prevent this from happening.

GenUnity overcomes these barriers by creating a space where residents can come together to connect as people first — practicing norms that foster a safe, brave space, sharing their stories, and identifying commonalities. From this foundation of common humanity, residents begin to exchange experiences and learnings, cultivating a more profound understanding of the issue at hand and unlocking the potential to drive meaningful change.

Helen recalls her cohort as "one of the most diverse communities" she's ever been part of. For Kathy, “community’ is how she would describe GenUnity in one word. The word represents the strong connections she forged and the sense of belonging she experienced within the program. "My favorite thing about being part of GenUnity was the community we built with all the participants. I really enjoyed and loved talking to different people working in different aspects of health equity."

Xavier echoes the sentiment, emphasizing the diversity within the program as a significant asset. He found the stories and experiences from various ethnic backgrounds, including Asian Americans and Latinx communities, “eye-opening and educational.”

Nneka chooses the word "unity" to describe GenUnity. She was struck by how GenUnity united diverse individuals under the common purpose of achieving health equity. “Bringing people who otherwise would not have anything to do with each other together for one cause...It's brilliant, absolutely brilliant,” she expresses.

Addressing a complex issue like health equity, which is influenced by several interconnected factors and affects everyone, necessitates the inclusion of a wide range of perspectives and lived experiences. The program's facilitation and integration of different views and social identities — across race, gender, class, education, sexuality, age, and levels of power — enables members to build a community unlike any other.

Gaining a Deeper Understanding of the Problem

In addition to building community with fellow residents, members get the time and space to engage with people impacted by or working on the health equity issues they care about and want to address. Together, they can critically evaluate and unpack these seemingly complex challenges.

“I feel like I learned so much about the issues that are present, like the fact that not everyone has equal access to health care. I knew those things, but it's like, we got to really dig into the why those certain things happen,” quips Xavier.

He also found himself grappling with bureaucratic hurdles and logistical challenges in healthcare access. “Working with Genuity, I got to see it's not that no one's doing anything — there are a large number of people who are working hard at this every single day and facing like real logistical hurdles.”

Although there were disheartening moments in which he saw the persistence of health equity challenges, he also witnessed the dedication of individuals working tirelessly to make a difference. This complex mix of experiences — akin to a form of realism — helped him move forward and delve deeper into the search for solutions. GenUnity provided the perfect space for these reflections.

Nneka's connections with the South Coast of Massachusetts expanded her knowledge of health equity demographics in the state, broadening her perspective. Helen also gained more profound insights into the health equity landscape during her time in the cohort. “I loved our discussions on how health equity is impacted by systemic things like privilege and oppression. These were things that I really valued before, but I now feel like I have a deeper understanding of them, and that's important to me as a person, both in the ways I'm marginalized and also in the ways I want to be an ally.... I'm really grateful to have found a community with similar values.”

By providing a space to explore the problem in greater depth, GenUnity helped these members take a step closer to finding innovative solutions that will create sustainable change. As the poet Zizi Abok once said, “You can’t solve a problem you don’t understand.”

Leadership Growth and Personal Development

GenUnity's approach is all about empowering everyday adults to be change-makers. The Health Equity Program gives members an opportunity to build the knowledge, skills, tools, and support they need to make an impact.

Kathy realized that regardless of their positions, individuals hold the power to drive change in health equity. "It made me realize that sometimes we think that because we're not in some fancy office or because we're not in some power positions, we don't have a say,” she highlights. The program helped reinforce the idea that everyday people can make a change, “It was very helpful to interact with different speakers and realize that at the end of the day, it's still the people who have the power."

For Helen, what started as strangers from all sorts of backgrounds became deep personal connections that have become a source of continued learning, reflection, and solidarity as they navigate life generally. After the program, Helen formed a book club with fellow GenUnity community members, where they still meet to discuss health equity challenges and explore personal growth opportunities.

Nneka discovered invaluable resources, such as DotHouse Health, a community health center. Before the program, she had no idea how deeply rooted this center was in the Dorchester community. Now armed with a comprehensive understanding of its impact, she eagerly looks forward to collaborating with them.

GenUnity: For Impact and Change

The Health Equity program makes a lasting impact on members, from cultivating a deeper understanding of health systems to community connections that enable change.

For Kathy, her participation in the program “motivated [her] to find a different approach to [her] work.” It enabled her to better understand and seek to tackle the issue from a more systemic perspective. Nneka found that the program opened doors for collaboration and professional growth in the maternal health field. She has since continued to amplify her impact with several maternal health partners, and has continued to share her learnings as a community partner with GenUnity’s most recent Health Equity cohort. Nneka knows that sharing her story might inspire those who come after her and open doors for new collaborations, just as community partners once did for her.

GenUnity's Health Equity program exemplifies the transformational power of community, learning, and action. It demonstrates that, together, we can effect lasting change and advance health equity for all, one person at a time.