How to Talk About Health Equity as a City Leader

April 30, 2024 - (3 min read)

When forging multi-sector partnerships and engaging local communities in the work of advancing health equity, city leaders find they are most successful when they are able to communicate clearly and simply.

This isn’t always easy, especially when terms and concepts related to community health—like “social determinants of health”—may not be immediately understood by various groups and communities or may carry multiple meanings and associations.

For example, in order to increase community awareness of health inequities and their root causes, city leaders from Roanoke, Va., recognized they first needed “not only more awareness but a common language,” says Bob Cowell, City Manager and a member of the team that took part in NLC’s 2018 Cities of Opportunity cohort.

To help city leaders address common communication and language challenges related to the work of advancing health equity, we’re debuting a series of Plain Talk communication tools at this year’s Cities of Opportunity Solutions Forum on May 8th, the annual gathering of city leaders and their partners who’ve taken part in the Cities of Opportunity initiative.

The Plain Talk communication tools are designed to provide three to five “grab and go” tips—in one page and in everyday language—to help explain terms and concepts necessary to building shared understanding. The tips and suggestions are grounded in current communication best practices regarding health equity communication and address terms and concepts such as “social determinants of health” and “systems change.”

Here’s a sample of tips for communicating clearly about “social determinants of health:”

1. When introducing the concept, use one of these phrases instead of “social determinants of health”:

  • Where we live matters to our health.
  • Where we live, work, play, or go to school can affect our health in many ways.
  • What surrounds us helps to shape our health.
  • Where we live can influence how well we live, how long we live, and even if we live.

2. Follow immediately with simple, clear examples. Start with an obvious one or two, then build from there. Explain rather than list.

  • (Obvious) If you live or work next to a toxic waste dump, you can be exposed to chemicals. If you live in old or run-down housing, you can be exposed to lead paint, mold, or pest infestation.
  • (Build) There are many other ways where we live matters to our health:
    • If we don’t have places near us to buy healthy, affordable food.
    • If we don’t have safe places to walk or exercise, like parks or trails or even sidewalks.
    • If our neighborhood isn’t “close-knit,” with a sense of community.

Learn More at the Solutions Forum

Are you ready to be a leader for healthy equity in your community? Register today for the Cities of Opportunity Solutions Forum on Wednesday, May 8. This half-day virtual event brings together city leaders, philanthropists, and health experts to discuss what’s happening on the front lines of the fight for better health equity across America.

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