Blog Health Care

Civic engagement for robust communities

Written by Matthew Bakko, Jennifer Harpring, and Stephanie Kurtzman of the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement

The Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement serves as a university convener on the Danforth campus to utilize and leverage university resources to respond to community needs and concerns. In its 10th year, the institute has a renewed mission focused on fostering strong communities through actively engaged citizens. The institute seeks to improve educational, nonprofit, and other civil society systems that contribute to a robust community and civic life.

Through its partnership on the Missouri Civic Health Index, the Gephardt Institute has affirmed the centrality of civic engagement to robust communities.

What is Civic Engagement?

As such, the institute’s approach to cultivating robust communities is through capacity-building work with faculty, staff, students, and community partners that instills values and skills for collaboration, develops civic agency, and facilitates transformative community partnerships. The following programs and initiatives illustrate this approach.

Civic Scholars Program

The Gephardt Institute Civic Scholars Program recognizes undergraduate students who exemplify potential for civic leadership. Through coursework, mentorship, guest speakers, formal presentations, and project development, scholars develop tools for community-based civic engagement work. Students from all schools and disciplines complete the program. Each year, several students explore complex issues through their project development and implementation, and for many, civic engagement and community health becomes a cornerstone of their academic training.

Andreas Mitchell ‘13, completed his civic project at a community-based organization where he implemented a healthy choices and resiliency program. He also shadowed a physician working in community health. Through this experience he developed the concept of the “community-embedded physician” who understands individuals in the context of their surrounding communities.

“I received hands-on experience doing the work that was important to me and could see myself working similarly as a physician and community leader to address the larger forces affecting people’s health,” added Mitchell.

He carried this forward to his medical school training at Harvard Medical School where he founded a chapter of Citizen Physicians, an organization that encourages physicians to become politically literate and understand the impact of policy on their practice and their patients. He attributes his training at the Gephardt Institute with building his understanding of medicine through a civic lens. He has inspired fellow Civic Scholar Michael Harries to found a chapter of Citizen Physician at University of Chicago School of Medicine.

Andreas Mitchell, Gephardt Institute Civic Scholar, 2013
Andreas Mitchell, Gephardt Institute Civic Scholar, 2013

This year, junior Maria Ruiz will complete her civic project with Nurses for Newborns, whose mission is to provide health care to at-risk, low-income mothers and infants in St. Louis. She will be trained as a Community Health Worker, spending the summer visiting families and connecting them to health care resources. This engagement with the community will provide her with perspective and insight when exploring the idea of creating a holistic health index. This index would go beyond traditional health measurements by incorporating social determinants and capabilities of health, offering communities and practitioners a metric that observes health in all its facets.

“Health does not exist in a silo,” observed Ruiz. “We must expand the conceptual space of health beyond the physical pathologies of the body. A patient’s situation has everything to do with the social and political institutions surrounding them.”

Civic Engagement Fund

The Civic Engagement Fund is one of the Gephardt Institute’s primary tools for building Washington University’s capacity for cultivating strong and robust communities. The fund is a competitive grant program that supports members of the university community seeking to develop civic leadership and achieve social impact through financial and technical assistance for St. Louis-based projects, community-engaged courses, and service trips. This support connects students, faculty, and staff to “real-world” people, issues, and problems that need understanding, consultation, and solving.

For instance, Junior Ari Gao recognized a gap in the homeless population’s access to Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC). To bridge this gap, Ari utilized funding from the Civic Engagement Fund to create Heart for the Homeless, a project that trains undergraduate students to advocate for homeless populations and provide one-on-one health coaching at health fairs towards the goal of connecting people to FQHCs. Under the supervision of faculty at Washington University School of Medicine, Ari and his colleagues partner with local non-profit organizations to ensure they meet an expressed community need and are tailored to the client population.

After a successful pilot with Peter and Paul Community Services, Ari reached out to LuAnn Oros, community consultant at the Gephardt Institute, for mentorship and advice on growing his program. Through dialogue about homelessness and health care she suggested organizations where he could expand his program and was awarded the institute’s Civic Engagement Fund to support his efforts.  Since receiving its Civic Engagement Fund grant, Heart for the Homeless has held another successful health fair at Covenant House, with over 30 attendees ages 16-22.

Global Brigades

The Gephardt Institute provides leadership training, mentorship and financial support for immersion trips locally, nationally, and internationally. Each year, Washington University’s Global Brigades chapter sends approximately 125 students—the majority of whom are pre-medical or pre-dental students—on five to seven service trips in Honduras. Global Brigades is an international organization that supports student learning and community development by arranging for collegiate service trips to address various aspects of community development and health. The most common WashU service trips focus on medical, dental, public health, water, and environmental service to their host communities. Through these experiences, students engage with community on a global level.  Students often credit their immersion experience with evolving their interest in community-based practice and health, often refocusing their aspirations around patient population, type of hospital, or anticipated specialty.

The Gephardt Institute encourages colleagues and community members to further engage with us to discuss how we can build upon a shared vision of engaged citizens and strong, robust communities. Please check out the website for information on how to get involved.