Initiative: Health Equity Organizing

The IAF Northwest Health Equity Organizing initiative works with health clinics, residency programs, and students to use community organizing tools and practices to address the social determinants of health - the conditions in our community where we work, live, and play,
that have been demonstrated to influence our health far more than medical care.  There is immense interest within the healthcare world to address the social determinants, but direct services to individual patients (e.g., housing referrals, food vouchers, resume workshops) are not enough to address community-level issues like unstable housing, food insecurity, unemployment. To build the power to address social determinants we need to organize.

Health Equity Circle

In 2009, the IAF Northwest began working with students in the health sciences schools at the University of Washington (UW) to build an organization that would provide a vehicle for them to learn about and apply IAF community organizing practices to address the social determinants of health. Health Equity Circle (HEC) now has 6 chapters across the West.  Together, HEC and IAF-NW have developed a “Community Organizing and Health Equity '' taught to hundreds of students.  Working with IAF-NW affiliates, HEC student leaders have helped advance paid sick/safe leave in Spokane, increased funding for affordable housing in Portland, and Prescription labeling in non-English languages across Washington state.

Residency Education

Recently, the IAF Northwest expanded its health equity organizing initiative into work with
residency programs and community clinics, beginning with the OHSU (Portland) and Swedish
Cherry Hill (Seattle) Family Medicine Residency programs. At Swedish, residents receive 4
hours of training per month equipping them to apply relational community organizing practices
to engage patients in their clinics and build “power with” them to identify and address the
barriers they experience in realizing positive health comes. The clinics - Cherry Hill, Seattle
Indian Health Board, Sea Mar, ICHS and Carolyn Downs - all serve very diverse populations,
including the most at-risk populations in the region.  In Portland, residents learn the
fundamentals of organizing as part of their curriculum on health equity and public health.

Clinic Based Organizing

The IAF-NW has worked with OHSU Richmond Clinic, WSU, CHAS Health and Partnership
Health Center to develop clinic based organizing efforts. Clinic organizers are part of an IAF
cohort of organizers that are located in the clinic to build the clinic’s capacity to organize and
work with other community partners to advance health equity. Organizers build teams of
patients, staff and community partners to identify the issues affecting their health and build civic
capacity to act for change. Clinic organizing efforts in Portland have resulted in legislation
requiring all prescription labels be printed in a patient’s preferred language as well as English.
This is the strongest prescription labelling legislation in the country. In Spokane, organizers are
working with CHAS Health to co-develop efforts to address structural racism and recruit and
retain a diverse staff.