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Best Babies Zone promotes healthy communities for healthy children

News for 11.24.15
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Laura Boytz, UC Berkeley, School of Public Health, SPH Bulletin

How are a community market, leadership training for teenagers and adults, and a community swim club related to maternal and child health? They are all efforts supported by the Best Babies Zone in the Castlemont neighborhood of Oakland, as part of its work to “change the conditions in communities that are influencing poor health under the direction of the residents living in those communities,” according to Principal Investigator Cheri Pies.

Healthy Neighborhoods Kick-off event

At the Healthy Neighborhoods Kick-off event in Castlemont, Oakland, in 2013, Best Babies Zone asked community members what a healthy community lookslike to them, and they wrote their responses on cards.

“Disparities in birth outcomes in African American and Latino/Hispanic communities are staggering. We have spent decades hoping to reduce these gaps through better delivery of clinical care,” Pies says.“BBZ staff have been able to work with community residents to identify, from their perspectives, the factors that are contributing to these disparities,” and to support local efforts to change those factors.

Best Babies Zone began in 2012 with a proposal written by Michael Lu, a graduate of the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, in collaboration with Pies and other Maternal and Child Health colleagues. When Lu was offered a position in the federal Health Resources Services Administration (as Associate Administrator for the Maternal and Child Health Bureau), he asked Pies to step in as Principal Investigator for the project.

The project emphasizes working with a variety of community partners in three local communities: the Castlemont neighborhood of Oakland, California; Hollygrove in New Orleans, Louisiana; and Price Hill in Cincinnati, Ohio. These neighborhoods were identified as areas where change is greatly needed based on birth outcomes and other measures of maternal and child health.

The work in each Zone reflects the needs and priorities of the local community. “In each zone, the work is completely different,” Pies says. “The residents are teaching us about what they believe needs to be changed and improved in their communities to create environments for everyone to thrive. When the staff at our New Orleans BBZ called and said that the residents wanted help with making sure that a freight train was not re-routed through their neighborhood, I said ‘go for it.’ Building on the issues that the community wants, leveraging our skills and talents to help them in their efforts, this is what we are trying to do.”

Healthy communities market

The Castlemont Community Market, sponsored by by Best Babies Zone, Youth UpRising, Castlemont High School, and Alameda County Public Health Department, takes place every first Saturday of the month. The Market includes produce, food vendors, community member vendors and a neighborhood swim clinic that is held at the Castlemont High School Pool.

In Oakland, programs like prenatal home visits and support groups for new fathers and mothers are part of the work, but so is an effort to strengthen economic opportunities for local residents through a monthly Community Market.

Monica Barr, Best Babies Zone Program Manager, helps staff in the three Best Babies Zone communities collaborate and learn together. “This work can be challenging,” Barr says, “because we’re often on the edge of what we feel comfortable doing, navigating relationships is both necessary and tough, and the work is long-term so you don’t necessarily see a result within a short amount of time.” Barr finds her role exciting, though, because there is constantly new knowledge to share and process together. "Because a key part of Best Babies Zone is to engage with non-public health partners," she says, "it’s exciting to learn about different fields, different perspectives on community development and health, and to try to distill those 'differences' into commonalities that can help us improve the ways in which we all work with communities to improve health.”

Asked to describe her most important research findings so far, Pies emphasizes the long term nature of this kind of work to address health outcomes. “We can’t say that we have ‘research’ findings at this point,” Pies says.

graduation celebration

A Best Babies Zone Mini-Grant helped fund the East Oakland Innovators (EOI) community leadership training program. Here, East Oakland Innovators celebrate their graduation at their final session in Dec. 2014.

“We have confirmation that a place-based approach builds resident leadership and leads to increased social connectedness and social cohesion. We have seen some of our BBZ activities reduce isolation and help build a sense of community pride.”

Barr agrees with this long-term focus: “Laying the foundation for successful community engagement takes time, patience, and commitment to building relationships with community members and with other organizations. Even though trust isn’t an easy-to-measure outcome, building trust early on and maintaining that trust is crucial for achieving those measurable, long-term outcomes.”

For now, Best Babies Zone is doing the groundwork to build toward their vision in which “every baby is born healthy, into communities that enable them to thrive and reach their full potential.”

For more information on the Best Babies Zone Initiative, visit