Community ‘champions’ help coalitions promote public health, new study finds

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Communities looking to form or sustain a successful prevention coalition can benefit from a community champion who can support their efforts, according to new research from Penn State and UTHealth Houston.

Community champions are local leaders who promote the value of community programs that prevent substance abuse and other serious public health problems, said Sarah Chilenski, associate research professor of health and human development at the Center for Research on prevention Edna Bennett Pierce and co-author of an article on the study published in the journal Evaluation and Program Planning.

“When influential people are willing to talk about their local coalition’s prevention efforts in regular conversations, speeches or public discussions, they can encourage people to get involved in local prevention efforts,” Chilenski said. “This person is not necessarily a member of the coalition. He is someone who believes in prevention and connects people to community resources, programs and leaders.

Community coalitions help coordinate the actions of various local organizations to implement programs, policies and other activities to promote community health, explained Louis Brown, associate professor at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health and principal investigator of the study.

“They are an essential part of civic efforts to promote healthy youth development and prevent substance abuse.”

The research team examined the functioning of 19 community coalitions across Mexico during their first year and a half and tested associations between initial community contextual factors and subsequent coalition functioning and outcomes. Coalition members participated in three waves of surveys on the context and functioning of the coalition.

Of the initial community contextual factors tested, only community champions predicted perceived community improvement. However, the study also found that community support for prevention when coalitions formed predicted several measures of process competence.

“Process competence is a coalition’s ability to skillfully coordinate action among members, with good teamwork that engages diverse stakeholders,” Brown said. “Our findings underscore the importance of having a strong base of community support when attempting to organize collective action to prevent youth substance use. By emphasizing the importance of health issues, local leaders may be able to create conditions conducive to coalition success.

Another key finding is that community coalitions improved member engagement and process competence over time. In the first 1.5 years of the coalitions, member engagement increased, as did coordinator skills and participatory leadership style.

“There is a development trajectory for coalitions and there seems to be a predictable course and things and ebbs and flows as you move into implementation and sustainability. It’s not linear and it’s not static,” Chilenski said. “We need more studies to show how predictable it is. This can help us understand the challenges faced by community coalitions and how to interpret them in their context. »

Lessons learned from the study of community coalitions in Mexico can be applied to community coalitions in the United States and other countries, Chilenski said.

“We are excited about the results of this study as they illuminate strategies that civic leaders can use to strengthen collective efforts to help young people thrive,” Brown added.

This research was supported by a grant from the United States Embassy in Mexico. Additionally, this study was partially funded by the US National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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