How the Bay Area Health Justice Coalition Prioritizes Community Voice
By: Esther Babawande
She never expected to get 1,000+ views on that video. It was her team’s first video. The focus was “What’s Happening with Shelter-In-Place,” a response to Governor Newsom’s order. It was supposed to serve as a resource for the community that had the first non-travel related case of COVID in the US. She expected a couple of hundred views at most from her community members. Her community members had pushed their team to continue to provide educational resources amid the pandemic. For Lauren Pennachio, that first video changed everything about her team’s COVID Response.
It was another late-night editing session for Pennachio. Ever since the release of the popular Shelter In Place video, her community had been asking for more tenant advocacy content. In response, Pennachio and her team started a weekly newsletter to help disseminate this much-needed information. Therein Pennachio found herself in this position many times during those initial weeks. She would stay up trying to include updates the Governor had posted that afternoon, to a video set to go out the next day. These videos were the highlight of the newsletter. As the director of revenue strategies and partnerships at Health Leads, Pennachio was used to long project timelines and less flexibility. A few years ago, she had worked on a large communications team, where she relied on multiple people to get advocacy projects done. This time was different for many reasons. For one, her core team consisted of herself and project manager, Christian George. Two, they were amid the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. And three, her community needed these resources more than ever before. They were practically banging down the door asking for help. Pennachio’s team had a history of listening to their community, this time like all the others, they would deliver.
THE NAME CHANGE
Her team, the Bay Area Housing Justice Coalition (BAHJC), started as a health learning initiative where health care systems, social service organizations, and community organizations got together to make decisions, share data, and assist their community members. They were recognized as the Bay Area Learning Initiative or BALI for short. Along the way, the team realized something fundamental to their purpose. While they “asked the right questions, and referred the community to the right places,” the root cause of the problems their community members faced weren’t being addressed. To move forward they all needed to come together, and decide what they would do to address these root causes. They placed the decision up for votes to their advisory group, network and team members, with the advisory group being overrepresented.
These 43 folks went through a collective decision- making process to narrow in on their social service focus. After countless conversations and meetings, they landed on a domain: affordable housing, with an emphasis on resource information systems and policy. Once the final conversation was completed, and they had two strategic points, their former name, Bay Area Learning Initiative (BALI), no longer worked. Names have power. Their former one didn’t identify them by their focus, their goals, or what they represented. So, they changed their name to the Bay Area Housing Justice Coalition (BAHJC). Their new name gave birth to a new project, “Housing is Health.”
Pennachio explains adopting a new group name and new priorities.
With their name finalized and a new project underway, they started to focus on their strategies and nail down who “they” were. For the core team of two, Pennachio and George, they found assistance through their relationships with local 2-1-1s, and the Bay Area Regional Health Initiatives (BARHII). Along with those partners, their greater team included their network members-community members who engage with their content and provide them feedback. Last but certainly not the least, their advisory group, made up of community group leaders, completes their greater team circle. Their advisory group’s voice is cherished above all in terms of guiding their decisions.
“When I think of teams who helped us execute [our work], it’s number one- our advisory group- they are always with us, they respond to our emails, text us and call us, and we talk to them monthly,” Lauren explained. “We don’t make any major decisions without our advisory group signing off. Sometimes, there are micro-decisions along the way, and we always bring them into the work to get their feedback.”
Way before most meetings were conducted over Zoom, BAHJC led virtual meetings with their advisory group. With many members living on the outskirts of Contra Costa County, having to go over the Bay to attend a meeting, a long $15 bus ride, didn’t seem conducive for anyone. The team realized that distance could be a deciding factor that precluded people from engaging with them. So they eliminated those factors. The decision to hold virtual meetings gave their advisory group members, most of which are at risk of homelessness, the ability to have their voice heard. With the onset of COVID-19, staying connected to their advisory board wasn’t difficult since they were used to virtual communication, “an accidental blessing,” in itself.
Of course, there were hiccups along the way, when the shelter in place order was enacted. From kids being at home to work-life emotional strains, balancing everything became exhausting. Pennachio found that having that ever-present virtual connection with her advisory group, shocked her and George out of a funk that seemed to hang over everyone else. Pennachio and George couldn’t revert to the less-than-needed process-oriented approach they were familiar with when the COVID crisis called for action.
“We in public health have this ability to be completely episodically action-oriented. All of the smoke and mirrors that made that juxtaposition okay is gone, and we’re like there’s a lot of distance here that we better be covering,” Lauren reflected.
Their COVID response took an education first approach to cover some of that distance. Their response comprised of virtual engagement, tenant and housing advocacy, policy work, and learning collaboratives.
“We needed to be there, and send this information as quickly as we could, so it was weekly,” Christian reflected. They spent countless nights up till midnight working on their weekly newsletters, videos, and other educational content. They tried multiple things, whatever worked they continued with, and what didn’t get shelved. They welcomed critic and feedback from community members on their content.
A CRISIS CARETAKING APPROACH
Five months into the pandemic, Pennachio and George still meet with their advisory group often, and when they aren’t answering countless emails, they are looking for the next resource to send out, community members to uplift, and new solutions to the problems their community faces.
“[A few weeks ago] An advisory group member reached out about her troubling housing situation,” Pennachio shared. “She needed to be seen and she needed us to be flexible to try to provide the support we can (fast track a stipend we were already planning to provide). Social worker Christian kicked in, housing & income insecure Lauren kicked in. We can talk all day about how “the system” severely hamstrings us, but we did what we could and got the kindest message back which included: “Yes, I’m struggling and there’s not much else I can say, except thank you! … Not once have y’all made me feel dismissed or anything. … You are my support group!”
Pennachio explains their team approach.
George and Pennachio are not formally that advisory group member’s support group and both lament the fact that we can only do so much. But with the humble things they can provide, they continue to support and champion their team with the skills and experiences they have. It is that human-centered care-taking approach that has brought them this far. From that first video about shelter in place to a consistent stream of tenant advocacy content, they have always been guided by their community’s voice. In a world full of people feeling drowned by their inner worries of the circumstances, Pennachio and George have found that simply overamplifying their community’s voice above the noise makes all the difference. They fundamentally believe the world would be better if we all listened to our community’s voice first.