Guest Blog: “Who are the Citizen Champions for Health?” Asks Mark Gamsu

Who are the Citizen Champions for Health?

This blog was reposted from the blog of Mark Gamsu – Professor at Leeds Met, a keen specialist in tackling health inequality through strong citizens, local government & voluntary sector.  Here he writes about local community health champions and examples from wider disciplinary circles.
In a still small but growing section of the health world we are increasingly familiar with the idea of ‘community health champions’. As Altogether Better say on their website

‘Community Health champions are people who, with training and support, voluntarily bring their ability to relate to people and their own life experience to transform health and well-being in their communities. Within their families, communities and workplaces they empower and motivate people to get involved in healthy social activities, create groups to meet local needs and sign post people to relevant support and services.’

One of the things that has concerned me about ‘Health Champions’ is that we can achieve wellbeing outcomes through other forms of activism that are equally valid. These are some of the characteristics that I would use to describe what champions do:

The point is that that “Champions” are not exclusive to the Health System. We would be mistaken in thinking that the only form of champion that can help us improve health and wellbeing are those who have got “health” in their title. We know that the social determinants of health have a much greater impact on our health than health and social care services. So it is in our interest to recognise, encourage and validate other sectors that are also promoting active and strong citizenship through champion models.

Here are two important examples:

Community Learning Champions

Some of the key players supporting Community Learning Champions are the Workers Education Association and National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE) and the trade union movement through UnionLearn.

“Community Learning Champions are people who become active in their community by promoting the value of learning to others. They may be promoting learning with their friends, neighbours, relatives or workmates, but they could also be meeting people they meet meet at the school gates, at the local shops, or in groups or clubs. Champions speak from personal exerience and act as role models for learning. (from NIACE website)”

Legal capability for everyday life

This is Law for Life’s legal capability project which sets out to equip people to deal with law-related issues they are likely to encounter in the course of their lives. I came across it when I visited the excellent Community Links in Newham who are piloting it.

The project is run over six sessions and includes:

  • Making sense of the law
  • Getting help and finding out about the law
  • Dealing with problems including practical skills
  • Broader issues of influencing change and community engagement

Topics include Housing, Employment, Discrimination and Welfare Benefits.

What does this mean for local public health?

It is not sufficient for us to focus on health champions. Of course they have a tremendous contribution to make to democratising and improving local health services and we must continue to promote them.

However, if we are to make a real difference to the social determinants of health – we also have to get out of our silo (public health is meant to be cross sectoral after all!) and support work in other sectors that opens up access to similarly complex systems and two of the most important must be education and that concerned with access to justice.

This means that Health and Wellbeing Boards need to consider how to take a system level view of how citizens are supported in developing and using their experience and knowledge of key systems – health, education, legal – to ensure that people get access to the support they need, can take more control of their own lives and help shape local services to better reflect their priorities.

What do you think?


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