Just as diverse coalitions play a significant role in bringing about policy change, diverse groups of stakeholders, especially those affected by the policy, offer much to a policy-change campaign. By building a system of advocacy and forming broad-based multi-stakeholder coalitions, consumer health advocates can increase their credibility within the community, impact change, and lay the groundwork for future campaigns.

These practices have been increasingly effective in advancing the Dental Access Project’s campaigns. With strong representation from communities of color at both the organizational and grassroots level, advocates have been able to further bridge the gap between consumers, service providers, themselves and policymakers to ensure that those enacting policies hear the community’s voice. As a result, the successful partnerships the campaigns developed have helped advance campaigns in Ohio and Washington to expand dental teams to include a mid-level provider.

Where there are no dentists…

Approximately 83 million people lack access to dental care, largely due to a shortage of providers. Communities of color, low-income children, and people living in rural areas are some of the most hard-hit populations, given the prohibitively high cost of care as well as the shortage of dentists in many areas around the country.

To address some of these disparities, Community Catalyst, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, is partnering with state consumer health advocates across the nation. The Dental Access Project has built a campaign around empowering community groups and consumer health advocates to work toward improving access to dental care through the inclusion of mid-level dental providers called dental therapists. The project is working to include culturally competent dental therapists on dental teams in Kansas, Ohio, New Mexico, Washington state and Vermont.

We have worked closely with our state partners to help them advance successful campaigns by building cross-sector coalitions that include faith-based organizations, community members and businesses. These coalitions engage partners throughout all stages of the campaign, recognizing various roles from the grassroots through to the grasstops, and empowering individuals to influence and implement changes in their communities.

Lessons learned in creating a successful campaign:

  1. Use value-based messaging to both educate and heal tense racial divides – Create messaging frames to focus on big picture concepts to speak to people’s concerns and commitments. These include “big tent” ideas such as promoting the belief that everyone should have access to dental care, rather than focusing on the disparities particular populations face. By emphasizing that most people face difficulties in obtaining oral health care, advocates can build bridges between communities. Advocates have found that messaging that includes personal stories also creates an emotional connection, and can help in developing new advocates. For example, our partners at UCHAN Ohio developed the “Shine a Light on Dental Access” listening tour to increase knowledge of dental access issues by sharing personal stories that appeal to a wide range of potential partners.
  2. Engaging and activating community messengers – Over the five days of the Shine a Light on Dental Access tour, dental health advocates in Ohio met with 61 consumers, capturing their stories through a variety of mediums, including story cards and postcards, as well as video-taping interviews. These individuals were encouraged to share their stories, discuss their own backgrounds, and the limited access to dental care they experienced to personalize the campaign. Following the program, advocates developed a speakers bureau training program to create a new level of activism for the project. Participants are trained to find their voice as advocates, and given tips and techniques to refer to when writing a letter to the editor, speaking to their legislators, or organizing community meetings to identify access issues. Lending real credibility and engagement to the campaign, community members shared their personal stories about limited oral health care through letters to the editor, contacting their legislators, or by participating in press conferences at the state house.
  3. Strong community relationships create significant policy change – With policy work changing so rapidly, it is easy to miss opportunities to engage the community. Identify leaders and key stakeholders in the community to learn more about their story. This encourages the community to become embedded in the advocacy work that is required to move a campaign forward. Check out our “Ten Tips for Engaging Communities of Color in Policy Change”.
  4. Build an internal commitment to health equity – The Children’s Alliance in Washington State, a Dental Access Project partner, is committed to undoing institutional racism. This decision has influenced the organization’s outlook on all of their work, and moved the organizational leadership to create a strategic plan in 2010 solely dedicated to closing equity gaps. Their commitment is now the driving force behind their focus on increasing access to oral health care. The Children’s Alliance continues to monitor and evaluate their equity work to keep themselves accountable to the goal they have set.

Whether you are just starting out, or you have been actively engaging diverse coalitions, we encourage you to continue this important work. For more information and resources on health equity, visit our Health Equity issue page.