A chat with Toni Williams about what makes the Culture of Health Prize special:

For more than five years, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Culture of Health Prize has helped elevate communities that are making great strides in their journey toward better health. This year was no exception as the Foundation celebrated four trailblazing communities from across the country who are rallying around a shared commitment to health, opportunity and equity. Selected from nearly 200 applicants, the winners of the 2018 Culture of Health Prize are: Cicero, Illinois; Eatonville, Florida; Klamath County, Oregon; and San Antonio, Texas.

Since the beginning in 2013, our vice president for public health, Toni Williams, has helped to lift up the inspiring stories from these nearly 40 communities. I sat down with Toni to find out why the Prize is special to her and what this validating national recognition has meant for these communities.

You’ve worked on the Culture of Health Prize since it started. Why does the Prize matter to you?

The Prize communities make my heart go pitter-patter. It’s very inspirational to visit these communities and learn first-hand how they are transforming the lives of their residents in a multitude of ways: By bringing partners together, by thinking outside the box and by making plenty of room for those affected by poor outcomes to shape solutions — these communities are getting it done. They think intentionally and strategically about how to expand opportunity and they explore every avenue to give everyone a shot at a healthy life. Every time I engage with leaders from these communities I say, “When I grow up, I want to be a Prize community.”

What makes the Culture of Health Prize so special?

The Prize communities become family. When we say Prize Family, it’s very real and tangible. Getting to know these communities and their local leaders and many of their residents is such a rewarding experience. When you learn about all the dynamic activity and hard work happening on the ground in these places, all I want to do is tell everybody. Everyone needs to be talking about this! Everybody needs to know how residents actively work alongside local leaders to drive change in Eatonville, or how equity is just baked into all of San Antonio’s efforts, or how rural Klamath County is bringing partners together to improve high school graduation and job training, or how parents in Cicero are making their neighborhoods safer and rallying around their children’s academic success. I know the inspiration these communities will spark because they’ve sparked it in me.

This year, you were able to join one of the 2018 winners, Eatonville, Florida, for their announcement day celebrations. What was that like?

It was a full day! We encourage the communities to make the most of their Prize win: Share the news far and wide, reach out to partners and thank them for their contributions to this recognition and connect with potential partners to get them interested in learning more and becoming involved. Eatonville ran with that!

There was a range of celebratory activities throughout the day and so many ways for all — partners, residents, champions, elected officials and more — to join in the celebration. There was a press conference, a VIP luncheon, a Parade of the Town and a community conversation. All of the community partners were involved, engaged, excited and proud of Eatonville and what they are doing. One of the places we visited that was particularly moving was the new Hungerford Elementary School and it was very evident how the whole town rallies around the kids, telling them how loved and valued they are, and investing in them — that was a beautiful thing to witness. Overall, it was a total community celebration, people were on the corner waving signs and cheering. It was a great day — the town was in it, from sunup to sundown!

How do you see the Culture of Health Prize bring communities together?

I love attending the Prize Celebration and Learning Event every October at RWJF because, for me, it’s wonderful to see the communities actually meet one another and share ideas. The synergy between them can be amazing and you can just see the wheels turning as they try to figure out how they can try an idea they hear in their own community. And after the event, they continue to bond and learn from one another. For example, for the past three years, all the northeastern communities have come together during their own forum to discuss issues of importance to their region. The communities recognize the unique learning and relationship-building opportunity the Prize provides.

What impresses you most about each community’s Culture of Health journey? What is the common thread?

I love that they are intentional about including everyone in the decision making. At large, I’ve found the communities work hard — and it’s not always easy — to engage and bring everybody to the table. I remember a representative from a Prize community last year said, “Bring your ideas to the table, not your egos,” and that’s just what these communities do. It’s about getting the work done and not about who gets credit. This attitude has brought many accomplishments and successes on a range of issues. I appreciate they welcome and value the lived experience and efforts are definitely being done with residents and not to residents. This approach lends itself to sustainability because residents really do own the positive outcomes and will fight to keep the momentum going. I love these communities because they are bright spots lighting up the nation.

Interview edited for length and clarity.