RISE music group from South Riverdale CHC performing at Shift the Conversation: Community Health and Wellbeing conference. The group is an example of how AOHC members build belonging to promote health and wellbeing.
By Kate Mulligan, Director of Policy and Communications
The priorities of our society are written on our bodies. Our health status – as individuals and across populations and groups – tells important stories about our living conditions. Sometimes, these are stories we don’t have the words to express. Sometimes, our bodies are telling us that we are lonely, or excluded, or marginalized, or forgotten. More than quitting smoking or losing weight, it is a sense of belonging – of social inclusion, warm connections, and friendship – that make the difference in how long and how well we will live. That’s the message from Susan Pinker, a developmental psychologist, researcher, author, and Wall Street Journal columnist who addressed the AOHC’s recent annual conference.
At the conference, I learned first-hand how AOHC member centres fill the role of what Pinker calls “third spaces” – places in the world that anchor us to our communities and create the sense of belonging that is, for humans, a biological imperative. Throughout the conference, and during the pre-conference Belonging Summit, I saw the emotional labour of staff members on display – the caregiving and place-making that it takes to create the spaces of belonging so critical to promoting good health. I heard leadership, empathy, courage, vision and persistence. During breakout sessions and hallway chats, and over thoughtful questions and poster presentations, I was impressed by the transformative leadership in comprehensive primary health care presented in so many creative ways by AOHC members’ staff. I thought of the words of retiring AOHC communications director Mary MacNutt, who saw the conference as the work of “reflecting AOHC members’ work back to the people who make it happen.”
I saw your leadership in reminding political leaders and ourselves to make space for important conversations, such as on anti-Black racism and health. I heard of the lifelong commitments to Indigenous health and the work of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. I saw the work to foster Health Links for the people most in need of belonging and care. I felt the emotional dedication to a peer leader in harm reduction for addictions and mental health. And I felt that sense of belonging and recognition that many delegates feel year after year – drawn in by community health champions who went out of the way to make sure I felt welcome at my first-ever AOHC conference.
As a health geographer, I see human health as a literal embodiment of our lived environments – the ongoing conversation between our material and social worlds. As AOHC’s new director of policy and communications, I’m interested in shifting that conversation – in sharing members’ health stories with the people who need to hear them, in seeing ourselves and our communities represented equitably in our social and political worlds, and in shaping our environments through the hard work of advocacy, political analysis and policy change.
At the conference, I saw how our members work hard to “Shift the Conversation” every day. Their stories are often the ones you don't hear represented in the media. But they are critical to the most important issues of our times – health equity and community wellbeing.
Over the past several years, we’ve succeeded at shifting conversations around health equity and health promotion, and putting those items on the government’s agenda. Health equity and health promotion are specifically mentioned in the LHIN mandate letters and Patients First legislation. It’s in the news and on the radar for the next election, with commitments already made on pharmacare by the Liberals and NDP – the first campaign promises on equity out of the gate. Soon, we’ll be shifting the conversation a little further by putting health equity not just on the table but at the centre: of the work we do, of public conversations about Ontario’s future, of policies for primary health care, and the work of building healthier communities.
Individually, we are not tireless. As Desmond Cole pointed out in his acceptance speech for the Media Award at the AOHC conference, our work can take a toll on our bodies, our relationships, and our health. But together we are relentless in our work for health equity and community wellbeing.
We have so many stories to tell. To make real change, we must tell them now. What’s yours?
If you have stories to share, please send them to Jason Rehel, story producer and editor at AOHC, at email@example.com. For conference highlights, check out this Storify recap.