Looking out on North Philadelphia at sunset

Philadelphians are at risk for the highest mortality rate and the lowest quality of life in the commonwealth.

This isn’t hyperbole: Out of all 67 Pa. counties, Philadelphia ranks last in both health outcomes and health factors, according to a 2020 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The factors include behaviors, clinical care, socioeconomic factors, and built environment

It’s a citywide crisis, but each community and neighborhood is impacted differently. Ability to access quality care is often determined by race and socioeconomic factors. And even if health care is available, is it equitable?

Data is crucial in identifying the disparities. For the reasons behind them, however, we must go directly to the communities that deal with them. That’s where the Well City Challenge comes in.

The 18-month innovation challenge led by the Economy League of Philadelphia is focused this year on mind and heart health, two areas where Black and brown Philadelphians have historically faced significant disparities. The initiative, in partnership Accelerate Health Equity (AHE) and powered by Independence Blue Cross, seeks homegrown solutions to community-identified issues. A new edition of the social impact competition is launching in early 2023.

What makes the Well City Challenge unique is a heavy focus on engagement — both in identifying needs and developing solutions. It gives communities a principal role in their own future.

That’s one of the key takeaways we’ve learned at North10 Philadelphia, where we work to help current residents and future generations in North Philadelphia live happy, healthy, and civically engaged lives. Health outcomes are a bellwether for what’s happening, and a reflective listening approach always works best in achieving better outcomes.

The first phase of the Well City Challenge was exactly that: a series of listening sessions in neighborhoods across the city.

These sessions gave our communities a voice. That may sound simple, but our voice is our power. Too often, well-meaning experts come in with solutions based on data and their own perceptions. The result? Failed programs, distrust, and little to no shift in outcomes.

Instead, the Well City Challenge asks stakeholders to look around, identify what they see as problematic — and then give them an opportunity to address that issue.

The inaugural challenge led to such locally-inspired solutions as grand prize winner Hey Auntie!, a multi-generational wellness tech platform for Black women that facilitates purposeful connections through conversations, fitness, learning new skills, and volunteerism. It also helped launch Shear Balance, a program that empowers beauty salons and barber shops by providing the tools and resources necessary to recognize and address mental health issues. The genius in these ideas, among the dozens of others brought forth by local innovators, is the unique perspective that only everyday residents can bring to the issues facing them directly.

Want to get involved? Sign up for the Well City Challenge newsletter and you’ll be first to know when the call for ideas opens early next year.

Christopher Gale, MPA, serves as chief program officer for community-based organization North10 and is a member of the Well City Challenge recruitment and selection committee.