This post is sixth in a guest series from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about the winners of its 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.
Under a century-old wood canoe suspended by wire from the ceiling, seven people sit at a round table with a full agenda of health matters to discuss for the next hour. But first, Charlene Nelson, chair of Washington’s Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe, asks everyone to pause.
“Take a deep breath,” she says. “Let it happen. Take joy in what we’re doing.”
Once a month, the Pulling Together for Wellness group meets to discuss ideas for improving the tribe’s health and well-being. The American Indian Health Commission for Washington State—which works with all tribes in Washington—launched the initiative. Shoalwater tribe members were among the first to adopt the model, says Jan Ward Olmstead, a public health specialist for the commission.
Three years ago, the tribe formed a wellness coalition, creating a framework to discuss physical, emotional, spiritual and social health. “It’s where conversations are starting,” says Jamie Judkins, a member of the group.
Before drafting an action plan, the coalition enlisted teens to conduct a health survey. The move was intentional: Tribal elders wanted younger members to feel as if they, too, had a stake in their community’s future. Pairs went door-to-door to interview families about tobacco use, physical activity and access to nutritious food. The teens reported their findings at a community dinner and were asked for their ideas. They suggested ways to improve and link pathways for walking and biking and advocated for policies to prevent tobacco use.
“The challenges of the community were illuminated, and they could see themselves in that data,” Olmstead says. “It really set a clear path as to what direction the coalition would want to go in terms of their strategies.”