We Can Keep Building: Advocacy and Organizing in the Midst of a Pandemic

Photo credit: Massachusetts Senior Action Council

In May 2019, the Center for Consumer Engagement in Health Innovation launched its Consumer Voices for Innovation 2.0 (CVI 2.0) grant program. This program seeks to engage consumers in order to advocate for policies and programs that expand how the health care sector addresses the social determinants of health (SDOH). Our partners at the Institute for Community Health (ICH) are evaluating the work of the program’s seven grantees to learn more about how advocates build and mobilize support for policies that address the SDOH (specifically transportation, housing and food security). In the Interim Evaluation Report for CVI 2.0, we not only learn that advocates are incredibly effective at consumer engagement and leadership development, but that even in the midst of unimaginable hardship and social isolation they are  continuing to build strong grassroots support and, incredibly, achieve significant policy victories.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented grantees with unprecedented challenges. However, in the face of these challenges, grantees identified and even created new opportunities for organizing, building relationships and achieving policy change. To meet the moment, ICH found that grantees used three key strategies to continue building support for their work:

  • Focusing on meeting immediate consumer needs,
  • Adapting to remote work and organizing, and
  • Shifting policy goals.

Flexibility became a hallmark of success as advocates, and the constituencies they organize, adapted to the changing policy landscape. Even amidst chaos, many of the advocates achieved significant policy wins like increasing the reach of Community Health Workers, extending rent moratoria and convincing states to develop COVID-19 safety protocol for Medicaid non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT). A summary of some of those wins can be found in our new report, The Path to Victory: The Role of Grassroots Organizing in Health Policy Change.

In addition to policy wins, advocates achieved significant gains in consumer engagement, reaching over 50,000 consumers in the first year and tripling engagement at all levels of leadership development. Grantees achieved this by broadening coalitions to include trusted community voices, prioritizing activities that met people’s immediate needs for things like food, housing, and COVID-19 testing and following up using both digital outreach strategies and more “old fashioned” tactics like phone banking. While the COVID-19 pandemic presented new challenges for outreach and engagement, some grantees found that consumers were more activated and excited to take on leadership roles. In addition, moving to virtual advocacy activities increased participation and accessibility for people who experience difficulty travelling.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the myriad ways our health system fails to meet our needs. It has also proven that in times of crisis, advocacy built on strong grassroots support and consumer participation can still serve as a mechanism to push all our systems to be more responsive to the needs of the community. Even in times of crisis, we can continue to win policy change and build strong advocacy, leaders, and communities.