The Heart of Access: Community Partnerships and Public Health Infrastructure in San Francisco

Dr. Grant Colfax, Director, San Francisco Department of Public Health, provides opening remarks at the Tenderloin/Western Addition screening.

Community partnerships are key to building and sustaining public health infrastructure. During the COVID-19 pandemic, community-based organizations and community leaders were important partners in ensuring that health departments could meet the needs of the diverse populations they serve. As health departments transition away from emergency response, many Public Health Infrastructure Grant (PHIG) recipients continue to build upon community linkages to promote health equity, foster trust, and improve access to and engagement with available services.

To highlight the city’s successes and lessons learned in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) created a documentary film called The Heart of Access. Partnering with ShakaJamal of OLU8 Film & Culture and Wendy Martinez Marroquin of AllThrive Education, the Center for Learning and Innovation at SFDPH produced a film that showcases the important role community partnerships played in deploying testing, vaccinations, and other resources to the individuals and communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19. San Francisco achieved one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates among cities in the U.S., and community leadership was paramount. The documentary also captures the stressors, challenges, and aftereffects experienced by community leaders and healthcare workers.

During August and September 2023, community screenings were held in three neighborhoods (Bayview, Mission/Excelsior, and Tenderloin/Western Addition), providing an opportunity to convene community organizations featured in the film. At the Bayview screening, organizations representing multiple communities, including Bayview/Hunters Point, Ocean View, Merced Heights, and Ingleside, and Visitation Valley, participated. Community leaders and health department staff participated in a panel after each screening to share their reflections and answer audience questions.

ShakaJamal, Director, Wendy Martinez Marroquin, Co-executive Producer, and Dr. Jonathan Fuchs, PHIG PI and Director, SFDPH Center for Learning and Innovation, at the Tenderloin/Western Addition screening.

PHIG funding is partly being used to disseminate the film, including a website to host the film as well as assorted resources and a discussion guide to accompany future screenings. The film abstract was also accepted by the American Public Health Association (APHA) Health Film Festival. The filmmakers are planning to feature the film in several other film festivals.

PHIG will support SFDPH in disseminating key lessons learned from the COVID-19 community response, which are highlighted in the documentary and can be applied to other public health needs and program areas. The flexibility of PHIG funding is such that it is not specific to one disease or program area but rather intended to bolster workforce and foundational capabilities across public health. Dr. Berta Hernandez, People Development Manager at the SFDPH Center for Learning and Innovation, shared, “This film represents the desire of the city, together with private and community employees, to capture what strong partnerships can achieve together. PHIG funds are providing us the possibility to disseminate this experience and speak with new generations of public health providers on the power of community leadership.”

San Francisco’s COVID-19 response provides important examples of how enabling the leadership and expertise of communities builds trust, engages community members in public health work, and strengthens systems and processes to advance health equity.

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