Feature: 2016 Culture of Health Prize community

The coronavirus pandemic has spurred local leaders in government,
nonprofits, and businesses to work together to address new issues within
daily life in Santa Monica.

A Q&A with Lisa Parson, Special Assistant for Equity and Community Recovery for the City of Santa Monica

In Santa Monica, California, a 2016 Culture of Health Prize winner, the city was already measuring community health, regularly asking about issues such as whether residents felt generally fulfilled and whether or not they had the money for necessities such as medical services. This proved particularly valuable in enabling the city and its partners to support the most vulnerable residents during the pandemic.

We talked with Lisa Parson, special assistant for equity and community recovery in Santa Monica.

We have the Wellbeing Index—a data tool that was first created to measure how communities are really doing. Before we created the index, we realized that our city departments were collecting data about processes that had since changed or information they had previously used to apply for funding. They no longer used this data and we couldn’t use it either. When we asked, “Why do you collect this?” the answer was, “Because we always have.” We needed to start from square one and look at what measures would give us valuable data to help build a strong community. So, we shifted to measure things like voting rates, how frequently people volunteered, and whether they felt they could influence things in the city.

As we were creating the index, we realized that what we were developing was actually an equity tool. And each time, we saw the same disparities in wellbeing appearing among the same groups—communities of color consistently had lower wellbeing than their white counterparts. A big lightbulb moment for us was knowing that even with all the great programs our city has, there are still gaps that need to be filled to ensure health equity for everyone.

In the last year, we had been working on boosting wellbeing in Pico, the Santa Monica neighborhood where people had the lowest wellbeing. We launched a program where we gave $500 grants directly to individuals, rather than nonprofits, to do a project that they felt would improve their community. When COVID-19 hit, we knew we had a network of nonprofits and active community members in Pico. But also, we knew there were community members that were unlikely to have the support they needed. We were able to use that information to focus our efforts and to stand up some projects that wouldn’t have gotten stood up as quickly without the index. For example, we set up a city-run food pantry in Pico, because there were no local ones and we knew residents were facing food insecurity.

We established a language justice fund last year from the work we had been doing with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, a national network of governments that supports jurisdictions that are doing racial equity work or want to begin to do it. Before, if you went on our website, everything was in English. But we knew if we wanted to engage the entire community, we needed to make things accessible. And that is about more than just English vs. Spanish—it’s also about the reading level that things are written in and making that more equitable. There are so many documents where everyone uses formal city language, and those are not accessible to the average person. During the pandemic, we made sure our communications team was keeping that in mind all the time. For example, “respiratory droplets,” which describes one way the coronavirus spreads, is not user-friendly for people who don’t know what you’re talking about. We need to say things in a simpler way and have that be the default so people can understand what’s important for them to know.

One of the things that we started in the pandemic was bimonthly calls with our nonprofit partners. There’s been a great collaborative spirit between the city and nonprofits, and between the city and businesses. We’ve seen some elegant and smart solutions come out during this pandemic that wouldn’t have happened if we had remained closed off to collaboration like this. For example, we moved our wellbeing microgrants program out to a nonprofit partner to make sure the grants could continue to reach those who need them, came up with new ways to do our food pantries and started doing open-air dining to save restaurants. It was hard to do these things in Santa Monica before, but we figured it out with partners, and they’re here to stay. It’s shown us that there’s more you get from collaborating than trying to hold your own.


Santa Monica, California

This Prize-winning community has been building an inclusive, equitable, and diverse community for more than 40 years.

The Culture of Health Prize

The Prize honors and elevates U.S. communities working at the forefront of advancing health, opportunity, and equity for all.