Community-Based Organizations Elevate COVID-19 Response—Sustaining CBOs Will Prepare for The Next Threat 

“Today, we want to say thank you. You have gone through the struggle and you have persevered.” That was the beginning of an inspiring message delivered by  Marilyn Watkins, DrPH, the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 CoAg CBO director, to community-based organizations attending the latest webinar from the CDC Foundation and the Vaccine Equity Cooperative. Dr. Watkins continued: “You conducted pop-up clinics in barber shops and beauty salons. You worked late nights and early mornings. You did whatever it took to get information to your beloved community. … So today, we celebrate you, and we lift up your groups and we give you all the credit for all that you have done in the COVID-19 pandemic. You came, you saw and you conquered.” If there had been a live crowd, they certainly would have given Dr. Watkins a standing ovation. 

Moderated by Dr. Lisa Waddell, the Foundation’s chief medical officer, the online gathering brought together representatives from a broad range of groups to look back at their COVID-19 successes and to provide a path forward to help their constituents continue to address the pandemic, along with other public health issues.

  • Venus Ginés, the founder and CEO of Houston-based Dia de La Mujer Latina, recalled how her Latino/a/x health organization launched into action in March 2020, mobilizing their community health workers, also known as promotores, into a wide range of pandemic-related outreach. Going forward, Ginés cited the importance of maintaining good partnerships with a wide range of companies and organizations in sustaining their work and credited the promotores as “the most precious jewel this country has,” emphasizing the importance of utilizing their skills, passion and ability to break down barriers. 
  • Khadija Walker-Fobbs, chief strategy officer of the Judson Center in Detroit, agreed with Ginés that the key to sustainability is “relationships, relationships and relationships.” She described building an equity coalition of more than 129 partnerships from diverse neighborhoods that continue to stay engaged through monthly testimonial meetings. Walker-Fobbs’ advice was to make sure to collect solid data on all activities, which can then be used to complete successful applications for new funding opportunities. 
  • Health Department Director Jenna Nelson at Family Service of Rhode Island reported conducting social determinants-of-health screenings, which led them to station their community health workers in neighborhoods “where residents can just come up and get support with whatever it is that they might need.” In addition, Vice President of Equity and Community Development Kinzel Thomas spoke about taking a different approach to recruiting community health workers. “We were intentional about targeting folks that lived in South Providence to lead this initiative, and we threw the job description out of the window to in order to do so. We did not ask or weren't looking for folks who had relevant experience or college degree. We wanted to bring in folks from the community.” And then the organization made sure these workers were properly trained and received a pay increase. 

The lively discussion continued as panelists launched into an engaging Q&A session led by Dr. Waddell, where they emphasized on-the-ground community health workers are key to the future of public health and as such, should be offered educational opportunities, along with much higher compensation. Thomas recommended that organizations engage with government and other stakeholders to advocate for that to happen, and Ginés also cited the importance of supportive care to staff and their families. 

Going forward, all agreed that government and other officials should engage community-based organizations early on, before decisions are made, to seek their input on best practices and strategies. Nelson’s advice to funders and others: “Communities have the answers. You just have to listen.” 

Dr. Waddell wrapped up the session with this summary for success: “Policy, partnerships and people with passion.” To which Dr. Watkins added, “And perseverance.” 

In case you missed any of the webinar, check out the full session below. You can find all the latest information and shareable assets from this session, including this video in Spanish and English, on the Foundation’s CBO resource pages.


This blog post is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $68,939,536 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, CDC/HHS or the U.S. government.    


Toni Perling
Toni Perling is a senior communications officer for the CDC Foundation.