A veteran of the New York State Health Foundation whose past experiences include supporting neighborhood-level interventions to increase healthy food options will lead the Dell Medical School’s Center for Place-Based Initiatives, part of the Department of Population Health.
Lourdes Rodríguez, DrPH, will serve as founding director of the center, which aims to enable and expand community-based programs that improve health and health care for vulnerable people across the community and the region.
Here’s what she has to say about community collaboration, the challenges she’s facing and — of course — breakfast tacos.
What will be the focus of your work at Dell Medical School?
Directing the Center for Place-Based Initiatives — although I think facilitating innovation would be a better term! I will work with the people of Travis County, with community leaders and colleagues in community-based organizations, with area businesses, and with Dell Med and UT Austin faculty and students to identify ideas that can solve local problems that impact health. I’m thinking about health in a broadly defined way: everything that happens outside the health system, which includes the doctor’s office.
What attracted you to this role?
The idea of “setting a table” for collaboration that brings many voices together, then testing solutions that are informed by people directly affected by the problem and, finally, bringing the best solutions to scale is so exciting! And I have learned that there are many community, organizational and city leaders in Austin who are doing just that. Being able to have a place at the table representing the Department of Population Health is very attractive. Building on the intellectual property of communities — what residents or community members know that “experts” don’t — is a great way to extend the reach of research, to improve practice and to dispel the myth that vulnerable communities need to be “fixed” by outsiders.
What’s a key experience that drives your work?
For more than 13 years, I had the honor of working with neighbors in northern Manhattan, organizational leaders, the New York City Parks Department and public health students to reactivate public spaces that had been rendered unsafe during the height of violence and crack epidemics in the late ’80s and early ’90s. We used a potluck approach in which everyone was encouraged to contribute their “best covered dish” to advance collective goals. Some organizations brought resources or programming; some residents brought their sweat equity or networks of relationships. In the community-potluck approach to population health, everyone’s voice and contribution is equally valued.
How do you imagine leveraging community collaborations and partnerships here?
As a new Austinite, I have to rely on the relationships of others while I work on building my own. Luckily, the Department of Population Health has convened a Community Strategy Team that has deep roots in the community and long, distinguished histories of leading collaborations. I plan to borrow those relationships as a starting point for eliciting project ideas. I also plan to rely on the relational and reputational capital of faculty from the School of Nursing, the School of Social Work, the Moody College of Communication, the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Austin Regional Campus of the School of Public Health at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. I have started to reach out to faculty in each of them to learn about the depth and breadth of existing community collaborations. As time goes by, I look forward to plugging into other networks and figuring out how to be of service to advance their goals and those of the center.
What are “place-based initiatives” and how will they benefit Central Texans?
There are as many definitions of place-based initiatives as there are mole recipes (or, for Puerto Ricans, sofrito recipes). Some people define it as a focus on multidisciplinary, multi-sector interventions in a single place such as an underserved neighborhood. My colleagues and I define it as solving local problems with local ideas and resources. I think of the work we are about to embark on as creating nodes of activities and inviting people from multiple sectors to contribute to those activities or solutions.
What are some of the richest sources for ideas to improve population health?
THE RESIDENTS OF AUSTIN AND TRAVIS COUNTY! I have found that when you set the table and invite people to contribute their ideas to collective problem-solving, you make room for innovation. That is the premise behind crowdsourcing, right? I am not a big fan of “doing for” — I prefer “doing with.” It is the equivalent of having eyes in the back of your head. When people from diverse ethnic, social, economic, political, personal and practice backgrounds come together, you become aware of new perspectives and possibilities.
What are some of the key challenges and opportunities you’re anticipating?
I have no track record nor history in Texas. That can be both a challenge and an opportunity. While I will draw from my understanding of how the shape of cities, their systems and their residents work together — or don’t — I recognize that this city’s landscape, its systems and the culture of its residents are new to me. We all have “blind spots”— the things we don’t know because we can only draw on the universe of our experiences. My challenge/opportunity is that the universe of my experiences is limited. The only way to address the challenge part and build on the opportunity is to share the journey with others.
What are you most excited about as you get started?
I am most excited about learning from my Dell Med and UT Austin colleagues, the Community Strategy Team, and Travis County residents. I’m looking forward to dreaming up projects together and testing new ideas. I’m also excited about breakfast tacos!