A surprisingly effective way to help improve Americans’ health can be found in a place you’d least expect—the Woodhill Homes public housing complex in Cleveland.
That’s where I meet Marilyn Burns in the lobby of a community center the day after she hosted an arts festival for neighborhood children. She recounts the highlights: African drummers, a DJ, a performance by actors from the Cleveland Public Theatre, storytelling sessions, finger painting, a stash of hula hoops—plus a unicorn walking around to entertain the crowd.
“It all makes kids happy, it makes them smile, it makes them share with others,” says Burns, a certified community health worker. “My work is to encourage them and be uplifting. That’s good for their health and for the health of the community.”
A Woodhill Homes resident herself, Burns seeks to promote healthy lifestyles and forge stronger social connections in this lower-income community by partnering with arts groups and health organizations to put on events. She also organizes regular Zumba and yoga classes, rustles up winter coats for kids in need, and simply listens to their stories. “Sometimes I go home and cry,” she admits. “But I also keep the children accountable for what they do in the neighborhood, and remind them how they can serve others.”
Burns is just one of many Americans who play a critical—yet often unrecognized —role in helping communities become healthier and more resilient. They are part of a resurgent movement of innovators known as system stewards who understand that our personal health and well-being is fundamentally linked to everyone else’s.
System stewards aim to make good on American ideals of democracy and community self-reliance by pursuing common-sense solutions to health, economic, environmental and social challenges. It’s not a new phenomenon—but an essential part of the fabric of human civilization that has sustained us for centuries.
As a society we tend to ignore crucial activities for which there is not a word. Take “entrepreneur,”which was seldom heard in the US before the 1980s when it became a full-blown buzzword honoring innovators who drive economic growth.
ReThink Health, a national advocacy and research organization, has embraced system stewards to highlight the work of people like Marilyn Burns who seek ways to ensure well-being for all. System refers to the entire web of actions and interactions (think ecosystem) that sustains us. And to be a Steward means taking care of the things we value—for ourselves and for generations to come.