In 2015 the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) launched a project called the Health Equity Zones (HEZ) initiative, with the goal of creating a new public health approach. Rather than prioritizing specific health outcomes, Rhode Island’s HEZ initiative was designed to shift investments upstream to improve the social, environmental, and economic determinants of health by intentionally investing in community infrastructure and resident empowerment. The HEZ initiative has grown over the past seven years to become an internationally recognized model for operationalizing health equity, and during that time we have learned a lot about the role of community investments and how our approach needs to be rethought if we are truly going to invest in health equity.

At its core, the HEZ initiative is a community empowerment model.  Currently, every HEZ is provided with $150,000 per year that is designated as “core infrastructure” funding. The first year of work is dedicated to the development and growth of a community collaborative; the execution of a community assessment to identify the needs and assets of their respective community; adequate funding and time to deeply engage with community residents and stakeholders; and the development of a formal plan of action.

The formal plan of action is intended to provide a road map for equitable investment in the community, and the state commits to supporting these communities in advocating for the needs of their community with funders to ensure that public health and non-public health resources are invested in ways that respond to the needs of the residents and stakeholders of a community.

The sustained commitment to supporting the infrastructure of the HEZ provides stability for the collaborative partners and allows the HEZ to build momentum year over year.  Momentum and sustained collaboration have led to significant shifts in community power dynamics that are beginning to drive political and social change in communities across Rhode Island.

Although we are now seeing the power of this model emerge, the journey has not been without significant changes in approach that have been essential in shaping our successes to date.

Read the full article about investing in health equity by David Churchill at Grantmakers In Health.