Mesa County, Colorado:
A case study of community transformation

by Joe Flower

This article was published as part of The Healthcare Forum's study, "Emerging Best Practices in Partnerships to Improve Health," funded by The California Wellness Foundation.
International Copyright 1996 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
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Map drawn by Sheryl Todd

If you've ever driven Interstate 70 from, say, Salt Lake City to Denver, you've been in Mesa County, and you have driven through Grand Junction, its county seat. Mesa counts 100,000 citizens peppered across the sprawling expanse of the western slope of the Rockies, tucked into small cities and towns, and spread across the great mesas, precipitous canyons and broad, peaceful valleys.

It's a land of awe-inspiring vistas. Peer from a clifftop down Grand Valley, catch the glint of the sun off the Colorado winding through it. Despite the green of the bottom land and the forests on the mesas, it's not a lush landscape, and it has never been an easy place to live.

Ninety percent of the people live in this one valley. Very few of them are African-American, Asian, or Native American. Only 10 percent are Hispanic. As in most of the West, much of the land here is controlled by the federal government, and the economy is based on farming, mining, and tourism.

A paradise,
an outsider
might think.

A paradise, an outsider might think. Far from the madding crowd. No smog. No gangs, no gunshots or sirens in the night. No traffic jams. No stress. No crack dealers on the corner. No slums, no decaying tenements with lead in the paint and in the pipes. What could be healthier?

But a closer look shows that Mesa County could, indeed, be healthier. Most people here live alone -- those 100,000 people live in 80,000 households. Income levels are 17 percent below the state average, unemployment rates one quarter higher, poverty levels one third higher. There are homeless people. There are people dying of AIDS (78 so far), yet people think of AIDS as something that "can't happen here." Mesa's incidence of high blood pressure is 22 percent higher than the state average, and high cholesterol 17 percent higher. In a place that looks like Marlboro Country, 22 percent of adults smoke (34 percent of the young men) and most people do no regular exercise. Among 12th-grade girls, 38 percent will admit to having used marijuana in the past year, 15 percent to having used hallucinogens -- and kids say there is "nothing to do around here."

By early 1992, two groups had set out to improve the situation. A dental task force was trying to figure out how to help poor residents take better care of their teeth. And the county Health Department had begun a community health assessment. In May, the two got together and formed the nucleus of what would become the "Initiating Committee" of a Healthy Community 2000 effort. They applied to the Colorado Trust to be part of the Colorado Healthy Community Initiative. In November, they were chosen as one of the dozen "Cycle One" participants from around the state.

By spring of 1993 they were ready for a "Stakeholders Kickoff" meeting. National Civic League (NCL) facilitators helped the Initiating Committee work out who to invite. As in most such efforts, they sought demographic diversity. They also sought a balance between "ordinary people" and those who controlled most of the resources and political processes in the county. And they tried to leaven the process with people who had never taken part in anything like it.

Larry Chynoweth of the Mesa County Health Department attributes the success of what followed to two factors: "First, an effort has been made throughout the process to include all the players. Second, vision is primarily a spiritual quality. To form a common vision, the souls of the people must be touched." Of the 140 souls invited to the kickoff meeting, 90 showed up to answer one essential question: "If I had a dream for my community, it would be . . ."

The stakeholders worked through the NCL Civic Index, grading the county in 18 areas spread across the economy, the environment, education, health, and social or civic capacities.

Some of their judgments stirred up controversy. Based on arrest statistics, they gave the county a "D" in public safety -- which the sheriff took as a personal insult, a disparagement of his ability to do his job. A new reporting procedure, it turned out, added in some minor crimes that had been overlooked before, causing a bump in the statistics. But in the end, the sheriff did not quit the community-building effort, but instead became more involved. Chynoweth cites this problem as an example of "a shortcoming of these quick community evaluations -- you have to be really careful with statistics."

Perhaps surprisingly, the one large local community agency that has shunned the effort is the largest school district, which cares for over 90 percent of the students in the county. "Some of the recreation projects we have considered would involve building new combination schools/community centers, but we have had great difficulty getting any decision-makers from the school district at the table. The superintendent is a great proponent of community-based schooling, , but he doesn't get involved We have very little input from them - and we need it."

In such "rugged individualist" territory, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the invited stakeholders became disgruntled with the process and stayed disgruntled. Consensus does not always mean unanimity. "We don't want people coming in here and telling us what to do. We all have the sanctity of our own projects and agencies, and it's hard for people to let go of their own ideas." Still, "I thought we were really successful in getting people to lay down their special issues . . . as long as we're just talking. But when it comes down to who gets the money, the old ugly stuff crops up again. . . .I don't think we solved [the competition], but we have had some success in working through it."

But by March, 1994, when the community celebrated the end of the planning process, they did have a consensus. The stakeholders had developed a ten-year plan of action, focused on five specific new community assets:

Of these five, people are already working on the electronic network, the master plan, and the Civic Forum.

The electronic network is up and working in the form of a Web site ( put up by Tapirback Enterprises, a small firm run by a pair of refugees from Los Angeles. The Web site features civic events, maps of the area, information about resources, and lots of pretty pictures of the area's breath-taking scenery.

The governments of the area (the county, cities, and special districts) are working out an area master plan with input from the Healthy Community 2000 assessments and the Civic Forum.

In many ways the Civic Forum turned out to be one of the most important concrete outcomes of the effort. A neutral non-partisan organization that allows a civil debate, it is already meeting regularly, buoyed by a $100,000 two-year grant from the Colorado Trust. They have selected a board of directors, applied for non-profit status, hired staff, and begun their own strategic planning. Their method is to pick a subject that the surveys have shown is important to the citizens -- such as affordable housing, or growth, or teen violence -- then hold hearings up and down the valley over a period of a month. The meetings are usually well-attended. A Vista volunteer is working with them, researching the valley's transportation problem, which is deep -- the valley has no public transportation at all.

Meanwhile, a second, parallel effort had been unfolding. Sister Lynne Casey, head of St. Mary's Hospital, says "I thought there were some natural synergies that could occur among the healthcare providers in the area. We had some conditions that were ideal for it: the size of the community, for one. The area was on a growth pattern, and a pattern of recovery from the downturns of the decade before. People were looking to future, and we were outgrowing some of our traditional facilities and programs." When she arrived from Santa Monica, California, in 1990, she immediately set St. Mary's on a program of Total Quality Improvement, following the management precepts of the late W. Edwards Deming. Part of that effort extended beyohnd the walls of St. Mary's, to their suppliers and partners, and the institutions "upstream and downstream," for instance, to Hilltop, a local rehabilitatino hospital that got 80 percent of its business from St. Mary's. St. Mary's was the 600-pound gorilla of healthcare in the area, providing services for the whole region, and cooperation was not easy across such differences in scale. But the effort was exciting and different for the people of the area, bringing a demand for a kind of employee involvement and creativity that they had not experienced before.

In late 1992, Casey and Barbara Sowada, her director of helath education, went to a Peter Senge conference at Bretton Woods, looking for the next step. They encountered Bill Isaacs of the MIT Dialogue Project. He had a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to use dialogue to attempt to affect a social problem. They suggested that healthcare was a good place to start, and Grand Junction was an ideal community.

Their intent was to start a dialogue among their own staff, but when they returned, the associate director of Hilltop asked if they could be included in the effort. So they opened it up to all the healthcare providers in town. In all, the dialog group held about 40 people, meeting two days per month, with the largest group from St. Mary's. After the first six months, which was covered by the grant, St. Mary's gathered a few partners to put on a second six months. St. Mary's paid a third of the costs, the Rocky Mountain HMO paid another third, and the rest was split among smaller participants.

"I may have
been naive."

The results were not unambiguous. There was some suspicion. "Some folks," says Sister Casey, "would say that St. Mary's must have something up its sleeve, since they are so committeed to it. And I may have been naive. The process helped the synergy among the providers as I hoped it would, but it also surfaced deep fractures that were not healed by the process, such as people's belief systems about institutional agendae, about osteopathic versus allopathic medicine, about self-help, alternative, and traditional medicine. Still, I would do it again. There is a higher level of commitment and accountability now among those who took part."

And the effort did bear real fruit. During the dialogue project, one question came up repeatedly: What could we be doing differently to make a difference for people's health here in Mesa County? At St. Mary's invitation, a coalition of health care providers and community organizations came together, determined to give the county a thorough physical. The 21 members of the coalition included the City of Grand Junction, every healthcare provider in the region, a local HMO, the United Way, the county Health Department, the state college, a school district, and the Chamber of Commerce.

This Community Health Assessment Task Force passed the tin cup in their own ranks (with St. Mary's kicking in the bulk of the money) and hired a research company to do the scutwork. Eleven focus groups pulled in over 100 citizens, interviewers detailed the views of 55 "key informants" (people in touch with "risk environments," such as midwives, church leaders, allied health professionals, cops and judges, students and school officials), and called up over 1000 people to take them through a 20-minute, 126-question survey. They combined this with "secondary research," existing data from previous county sources, and from outside the county.

It took 15 months, but using these methods the task force identified 14 major problem areas, and boiled those down to the county's top five health priorities:

Once the survey was done in mid-1995, the coalition set out to publicize the results. They published a poster with lots of facts and the big picture, and a 138-page book with all the details. The local paper printed a summary. The task force's "greatest hit" was a 22-minute video based on their interviews with "key informants." "We used it all over the community," says Deedee Mayer, executive director of United Way for Mesa County. "to educate everyone in the community who would listen. People really commented on it. A lot of people won't sit and read -- but take a video to a service club, or a high school, and you have an audience. It has been very useful."

True to the roots of the effort in dialogue, the poster and other materials did not emphasize the identities of the organizations behind the effort -- no names, no logos.

Then they set to work, putting together a local task force to deal with each priority. "We call them `the trend benders,'" says Carolyn Bruce, the director of planning at St. Mary's, "since, if trends continue the way they are going, we'll be a lot worse off."

The task force spent nine months broadening its reach beyond its original 21 providers. In four major community meetings, it hashed out action plans for each of the five areas. They ended up with seven major community initiatives and some 20 minor ones.

The five teams work autonomously, under a mandate to develop and carry out any action that they feel might produce measurable results. The task force provides volunteer facilitators and trainers to make the process as productive as possible. A 20-person coordinating committee helps all the teams, and works as a "bridge" for cross-over projects that might fall between the cracks.

"In a community this size, that's manageable," says Mayer. "The networks are very strong. There is a great esprit de corps to improve the quality of life here." She adds with a laugh, "as long as it doesn't cost anything. But it's easy to pull people together for the first stage of planning. We had bankers, and people from the Department of Social Services. We had all the major power bases -- ranchers, the energy industry, even Club 20, a conservative organization that represents ranchers and such on the Western Slope. The majority leader of the state legislature and the president pro tem of the state senate are local, and we involved them. The only opposition was lethargy -- and that ebbs and flows."

The task force plans to re-assess its progress during 1997, and to repeat the health assessment in 1998. "As people work with the information and try to move forward to specific actions," says Mayer, "they see that it's not as neat and tidy as they originally saw it. Some people have trouble letting go.

"The question," she continues, "is: how do we engage people outside the health or human service community over a long period of time. People say, `I have a life. I can't go to meetings all the time. Yet we paid health and human services types lose touch, and that can be deadly."

"What we choose to do with this information," says Mayer, "will say a lot about where we go in the next decades. But I think we're going to see specific progress by the year 2000 -- we are already seeing some success in the teen pregnancy rate."

The difference between these two successive processes is striking -- the one almost purely voluntary, inexpensive, and working by consensus, the other using paid researchers and consultants. The Healthy Communities 2000 planning effort cost approximately $15,000, according to Chynoweth, while the overall costs of the community health assessment approach $100,000. The health assessment effort went more smoothly than the planning effort -- it's goals were more confined, and the people involved shared a great deal of their professional background and assumptions. The planning effort was messier and more involved, "but I have more confidence in that process," says Chynoweth. "I am more comfortable with it." The health assessment actually involved more people than did the planning process, but only as respondents to surveys or members of focus groups.

Was one right and the other wrong? They served different needs. As a way to gather information, give the community a picture of itself, and urge people to think more deeply about their health, the health assessment worked wonderfully. As a way to mobilize citizens and get them involved in their own future, the planning effort and the resulting Civic Forum have been far superior.

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