Dolores Huerta was 25 years old, working at a community services organization in Stockton, California, when a farmworker who had been paralyzed by a stroke came seeking help applying for welfare.

Because the man couldn’t walk, Huerta took him to the local social services office, where a worker refused to allow the man to apply for benefits.

Her boss told Huerta to go back to the welfare office and demand to see a supervisor.

“I thought, ‘I can do that?’” Huerta told a packed audience at today’s APHA Annual Meeting session on “Health Equity and its Transformative Place in Social Change.” “He didn’t say, ‘I’m going with you,’ or ‘I’m going to make a phone call and let them know you’re coming.’”

Huerta returned to the welfare office, demanded to see a supervisor, explained the problem, and the paralyzed man was able to successfully apply for assistance. That was the moment, Huerta said, she realized she had power.

“It was such a revelation for me,” said the now legendary community organizer who, along with also-legendary labor organizer Cesar Chavez, founded the United Farmworkers of America.

“Instill into people that they have power,” she told the packed audience. “Let people know, and then give them the courage so that they know they can stand up for themselves.”

You might have noticed some banners around the San Diego Convention Center promoting the idea that power is health. That’s a message from the California Endowment’s 10-year “Building Healthy Communities” initiative. The endowment’s Robert Ross, who moderated today’s session panel, told the audience his organization has “undergone a transformation ourselves as a private foundation committed to addressing and eliminating disparities.” While the foundation once took more of a “clinical and health coverage approach,” now efforts focus on power, belonging and changing conditions so communities become healthier.

San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood is one of the Building Healthy Communities’ 14 focus sites across the state. Panelist Ramla Sahid, founder and executive director of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, grew up there after her family moved to the United States from Somalia, and she now works as a community organizer working to help the people who live there affect change. Efforts include one to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline.

“We have to move at the speed of trust, as one of our elders said,” she told the audience. That means taking the time to build trust with people who can make a difference. In this case, it was the presiding judge and the police chief. She said building that trust takes a lot of time and requires both sides sharing fears and concerns.

“Change is not easy,” she said, but as public health practitioners, allow time for talking about solutions instead of getting caught up in merely collecting data. “We can have courageous conversations about disagreements.”

Session panelist Manuel Pastor, professor of sociology and ethnic studies at the University of Southern California and author of the recently published “State of Resistance,” reminded the audience of the importance of terminology when working to help build power. Don’t use the term “disadvantaged,” he said, when talking about communities that lack equitable resources and suffer health disparities. The correct term is “structurally disempowered.”

When a session attendee asked about the relationship between community organizing, power-building and climate change, Sahid reminded us of the need to include community members in the drafting of climate action plans.

“Our country’s disaster plans are made for the middle class,” she said to applause. To change that, we need to vote, organize and be sure we’re listening to people.

Another way the public health community can help build power as a tool toward better health: start asking people if they vote and if their family members vote.

“I like to say that every moment is an organizing moment,” Huerta said. “As health professionals, you talk to a lot of people who need to be organized. Let them know that they have power. Let them know that they can be engaged civically. …Let them know that they have power and they can make a difference in their community.”

You can catch the entire session on APHA Live.

To read more about this story, visit the January 2019 issue of The Nation’s Health.