Leadership Interview: Sarah Robinson

Sarah Robinson is the program integration manager for Mesa County Public Health, which administers Healthy Mesa County, a partnership that aims to improve the health and well-being of Mesa County residents.​ Based on findings from the 2012 Community Health Improvement Plan, Healthy Mesa County aligns the work of local agencies and community partners to address four key factors that play a role in the health of the local population: parenting, the built environment, social and emotional well-being and access to care.
 
The Ascent: How does Healthy Mesa County support better health for local residents?
 
Robinson: Healthy Mesa County is a community-based effort to change the environment in which health happens. Our community has come together and decided that we can affect some poor health outcomes we’re seeing—like high suicide rates and rising obesity rates--if we can get to the root causes. To do that, we’re building social capital, that sense of connectedness among our community members. If we can affect that, we can affect issues downstream.

When we’re talking about social capital, it’s not just working to have someone’s needs met. It includes work so those receiving help are also able to contribute--to participate and be involved in the effort, too.

The traditional approach for community organizations to affect change is topic-by-topic, or trying to work through a specific health care group or social service entity. But when we work in alignment, we can make forward movement. We involve everyone who is impacted by our community and those who impact community members when we work together. That includes law enforcement, politicians, policy makers, community organizations and the business community. To be effective in our community, the approach truly has to include all levels, all partners, all voices.

The Ascent: What are the big changes you've seen in the last five years in how the Mesa County community addresses social determinants of health?

Robinson: There are a lot of large-scale opportunities to affect social determinants of health in our community. Rather than treat them as separate projects with different goals, our work is to align them. That requires a lot of behind-the-scenes activity that really helps Healthy Mesa County move forward. 

There is a temptation to dive into large-scale projects that focus on meeting deliverables, but our job is to pause, take a step back, consider how it aligns with the overall community goals, and then link it to the many other efforts that are happening around the community. We want to make sure it’s aligning and not creating conflicting messages for our community members. 

Some of the work that I focus on is at the program level, ensuring community members can move between programs as seamlessly as possible. The need for stability in the infrastructure is important before taking that next step, because we want the work to have an enduring impact. Our work goes to build trust behind the scenes, to build infrastructure and streamline processes. Some of that isn’t as meaningful to community members as public meetings, but it has to be done for the framework to function.

The Ascent: What is next on the agenda for Healthy Mesa County?

Robinson: The infrastructure work behind the scenes continues. We’re identifying gaps and limitations in services so, as we get more people actively engaged in our community, we can find ways to fill the gaps.

We’re just starting implementation of a neighborhood-based project in the Clifton area to increase social capital, build trust and enhance connections between businesses, residents and resources. It’s taken us a year to reach consensus on what will move the dial, and we’re still developing some of those direct strategies. Our next big step is really engaging at the ground level; we’re listening to our community members and having them participate in a meaningful way. We’re making sure our partners are bought into this now by gathering that ground-level involvement, support and direction.