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Learn how the Full Frame Initiative partnered with the City of New London, CT to demonstrate how you can transform a city to focus on wellbeing – without layering on a new bureaucracy.
New London is a scrappy, close-knit Connecticut city, proud of its history and diversity. While the resilience of residents and neighbors became all the more visible during the pandemic, so did the deep disparities and struggles of those most marginalized in the community. City leaders responded in 2020, passing a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis and increasing mental health and opioid response resources.
Mayor Michael Passero, Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein, city councilors and residents recognized the importance and progress of these steps. They also felt an obligation to push transformation much further and deeper – and to do so quickly. But how?
A former state agency director in neighboring New York connected New London with the Full Frame Initiative (FFI) and a partnership quickly followed. In New London, the government is not an adversary of change – it is leading the change. And when they started to view their problems through a different lens, they came up with radically different solutions. By leveraging existing public mechanisms from procurements to community meetings to hospital briefings, we are demonstrating that transforming a city isn’t about layering on new bureaucracy – it’s about creating a vision with clear principles that make better outcomes inevitable. And it’s helping reframe how leaders and community members see their community.
The starting point arrived in the form of the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which provides states and cities with massive funding to address COVID fallout. Rather than assuming that the “answer” was to fund more case managers and program staffing for community organizations that would disappear when the federal money ran out, we’re helping the City direct this funding to address root causes: the systemic problems creating the need for services in the first place.
Our work began by supporting an ARPA committee made of community, government, business and nonprofit leaders to co-design a request for proposals for New London to distribute their funding to nonprofits and community organizations. However, this was not your typical funding request: the proposal requirements focused on addressing equity and racism, building on assets in the community and ensuring shared power with residents. It also committed the human service system to working in a fundamentally new way.
After FFI designed the request for proposals and New London selected their recipients, we began working with the grantees as part of a community of practice. The community of practice works to answer critical questions like: How could we disrupt the ways we’ve done business in the past? How do we lean into wellbeing as a core principle? What are the structural barriers getting in the way of people’s access to wellbeing? What data can we collect about what is working and how New London needs to keep changing as a city?
ARPA funding is the starting point. Durable change requires that the concepts and changes in behavior, processes and perspectives occurring in human services go far broader. As the ARPA committee came to understand a wellbeing orientation more deeply, they began to see potential applications across the city leading to local spread. City councilors are pushing for this approach to be adopted more broadly, area hospitals are getting involved and more.
The true power of what New London has undertaken is how their vision is permeating beyond the city, even as the work itself is still in its early phase. State leaders, regional associations and the National League of Cities are inviting New London to share their example of the transformational power of starting with wellbeing. FFI and New London have briefed the White House Office of Management and Budget on this process, and are providing follow up materials at the Office’s request. These early ripples create a new sense of what’s possible and are making New London a model for how a city thinks about itself and how it drives community change.
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