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Health Beat: Community connections foster health and wellbeing

Toffer Lehnherr

On a cold, icy afternoon about a year ago, a 4-year old and his mother hung a notice on my front door.

Rebecca and her son, Frances, are my neighbors from just a few blocks over. They had navigated the disconnected network of sidewalks in our neighborhood, known as “Franklin to the Fort,” to let folks know about an upcoming community conversation around housing.

A week later, I showed up at Franklin Elementary School for a Neighborhood Council meeting with Rebecca, Frances and 90 of our neighbors.

After the typical Neighborhood Council business, Rebecca and a couple staff members from the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative (MIC) facilitated opportunities for neighbors to talk with each other about the future of housing in Franklin to the Fort and across Missoula.

We weren’t asked to accept or reject a developer’s design for our neighborhood. We weren’t asked for input on the latest plan for a building downtown. My neighbors and I were simply asked to talk with each other about what we had experienced around housing in Missoula, and what we wanted for the future.

At the end of the meeting, MIC invited everyone to attend a broader, community-wide meeting to talk with people from across Missoula about housing. I attended that meeting – and the next one. Many of my neighbors kept showing up, too.

There was no political agenda. Nor was there an impossible promise to fix the complex issue of housing in Missoula. There was only the opportunity to listen, to share, and to consider an invitation to continue listening and sharing across our community.

This process – designed to lift the voices of everyday community members – is called community organizing. While it is critical that these conversations eventually translate to public action, the priority of community organizing is to help everyday people connect with our neighbors and understand the power we all have to create positive change.

You may be asking: What does this have to do with health?

We know – with robust scientific support – that health is improved when individuals and communities feel a sense of agency to address the pressures affecting their lives. By listening to everyday people, inviting them to share their experiences with others, and connecting them to the decision-making processes that shape our community, we can enhance that sense of agency.

As Health Equity Coordinator at Partnership Health Center, my job is to help make those connections, just like Rebecca and Frances did for me.

I’ve been listening to as many folks in our community as possible. Clearly, many in our community don’t feel comfortable sharing their experiences with issues like housing, childcare, or other issues pressuring their lives. When I ask why, I consistently hear that many of us don’t feel or experience the kindness and respect that often leads to a willingness to talk openly about what is pressuring our lives.

As I listen to our fellow community members, it turns out that although they may feel disconnected, frustrated, and even angry – they aren’t apathetic. In fact, most are seeking an opportunity to create change. If you’re seeking such an opportunity, please connect with me.

I’m one of four community organizers embedded in organizations across Missoula. Briana Lamb at the Missoula Urban Indian Health Center, Christine Littig at the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center, and Sam Duncan at the North Missoula Community Development Corporation are all eager to connect with you and learn about what is pressuring your life.

Whether it’s the rising cost of housing, congested streets, social isolation, expensive childcare, or anything else – you have the power to address these issues. You have the power to create change. Please consider this an invitation to take the first step.

Please call me or any of my fellow community organizers listed above. I can be reached at 406-258-4522 and would love to hear about your experiences in Missoula.

Together, we can create a future of health and wellbeing throughout our community.

Toffer Lehnherr is Health Equity Coordinator at Partnership Health Center. As a public school teacher, he saw the positive effects of nourishing food, stable housing and supportive child care on students’ ability to learn. Now, he works with everyday people to address health outcomes in our community. He can be reached at 406-258-4522 or lehnherrc@phc.missoula.mt.us.