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She Didn’t Listen, and It Paid Off


Our friends at Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) support people who are working to build a culture of active living and healthy eating in the communities that are highest at risk for obesity. HKHC leaders work on a community level to create policy or environmental change that will create healthy environments.

In the guest piece below, HKHC shares the story of Rosa Soto, who is working to improve community health in Baldwin Park, Calif.

As a child, Rosa Soto didn’t listen well. Not to adults who said she’d never speak clearly because of her lisp. Not to a community that said she’d never graduate. Not to social pressures that resulted in most of her friends becoming teen mothers or accepting the low-paying job and sticking with it to “pay the bills”. Instead, Rosa overcame her lisp in three months, graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in political science and international relations, and has been working to empower underserved families and children for over 15 years.

“I’m a community organizer,” said Rosa, Regional Director for the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA) and the Project Director for the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) project in Baldwin Park. “I never thought of myself as a public health person,” she said although her career spans teen pregnancy, diabetes and now childhood obesity.

It’s understandable that Rosa self-identifies as a community organizer. She grounds herself in family and in helping others find their voice. Rosa’s parents were immigrants from Mexico. “A lot of my childhood was about fitting in and finding a place of belonging,” she explained. And she wants others to also feel they belong and can make a difference. That the status quo doesn’t have to remain the norm. “This work is important to me because it gives me an opportunity to demonstrate that change is possible.”

A Style of Shared Leadership
Strong community engagement has been a critical component of the HKHC work in Baldwin Park. With every step, youth and community residents have been equipped to take leadership roles in the initiative. It’s a more time consuming process but creates incredible synergy and deep capacity for social change. Recently, residents attended a city council meeting regarding a moratorium on new drive-through restaurants. As usual, CCPHA provided a translator for them. But this time, things were different.

“One resident, who always has a translator, told the translator to sit down,” Rosa said. “He said, ‘I’m going to do this in English.’ It was a transformational moment,” she explained. “And now every one of our residents is speaking in English, especially in meetings with elected officials.”

Clearly, Rosa and her team are true connectors. They build bridges across traditional divides. For example, before a meeting between resident leaders and consultants or professionals, they ensure that community residents have training around the issues and are equipped with the language needed to confidently advocate for their needs. Not just by having translators available, but by teaching them professional terminology. They also ensure that the professionals know before coming in what the residents need and want so that the conversation can be more productive.

Making Vital Connections
They connect communities. Recently, resident leaders took a field trip to a nearby community and were exposed to a new model of community design—one where fresh and healthy produce was available and affordable in multiple locations within walking distance and where the built environment made it possible to easily walk or bike to those stores. They talked with store management about their retail philosophy and also shared back what they are working on in Baldwin Park. Good connections were made with leads to new resources. And the residents returned more confident and passionate about making the changes they envision.

They connect issues. Because of CCPHA and their partners’ work in this area, the connection of health to other vital issues is becoming more prevalent. Rosa was recently at the annual “state of the city” address where the mayor discussed the pillars of a community for improving quality of life. “He mentioned the economy, services, safety, and then there was a pillar for health,” Rosa said. “Wow, when health becomes a pillar of the community and the mayor says so, you’ve forever changed the course of how business is conducted in the city.”

And they are connecting people to the power they have within themselves to change their world. “Often times,” she said, “we’re so challenged by deadlines and imposed processes that allowing natural leadership to evolve gets pushed to the side.” Yet, Rosa said, it’s a little like fishing. “It’s like throwing out a net and waiting. Whatever gravitates toward your net is what you’re meant to consume. It’s the nourishment you need. Artificial processes, like nets, are only meant to be guides, but we need to allow people to come together and exert their own leadership and grow.” That takes time and good listening skills.

According to Rosa, “When people feel like they’re leaders and are connected to larger changes, you can affect transformation in any issue and have significant impact in the social fabric of that community.” It’s a good thing Rosa didn’t listen when she was child. But she’s sure listening now.

Click here to learn more about Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities.

Editor’s Note: HKHC is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). is a project of RWJF.