Everyone can be a steward
Shared stewardship is the means to attain an equitable, thriving future
Jane Erickson and Bobby Milstein are Directors at The Rippel Foundation.
On her busiest days as the Director of Outreach at the New Castle Prevention Coalition, Dora Williams walks about 12 miles along the Route 9 corridor just south of Wilmington, Delaware, knocking on every door to share the organization’s resources for substance use recovery. But conversations often turn from substance use to larger discussions about life’s challenges – the need for stable housing, financial security, a healthy environment, and educational opportunity.
These are some of what are called vital conditions for health and well-being—the foundational factors people and communities need to thrive, such as basic needs for health and safety, humane housing, meaningful work and wealth, lifelong learning, a thriving natural world, and reliable transportation. Central to all of these is the vital condition of belonging and civic muscle. Belonging means feeling part of a community, embraced for who you are and valued for what you bring, and it builds civic muscle—the power of people in a diverse, multiracial society to work across differences as stewards of their lives together.
Each of the vital conditions contributes to individual and collective health and well-being. Ms. Dora, as she is known, came to realize that the key to reducing substance use and addiction in the community would be to strengthen vital conditions. Throughout the nation, community stewards like Ms. Dora are working to establish the vital conditions that everyone needs to participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. Stewards can be people, organizations, or networks who work with others to create the conditions that everyone needs to thrive together, beginning with those who are struggling and suffering. Given the entrenched inequities in health and well-being across the country, particularly among people of color, America needs more stewards to rise and do their part to create an equitable, thriving future.
Shared stewardship goes beyond traditional leadership. Whereas leaders often focus mainly on their own individual or organizational interests, stewards are driven by an expansive understanding of what we can accomplish by bridging differences and embracing our mutual interests—taking shared action to create a world in which everyone can thrive together, with no exceptions.
Stewards define success as more than individual victories; they strive to transform unjust systems that are not yet built for everyone to thrive. That is why shared stewardship, animated by belonging and civic muscle, is an antidote to the disconnection, fragmentation, and systemic exclusion that too often divides Americans and causes so much struggling and suffering. By strengthening stewardship, those working to build healthy, equitable communities are able to shift levers--like organizational strategies, policies, resource flows, and power dynamics--that ultimately expand vital conditions. Over time, Ms. Dora has moved beyond focusing solely on substance use to addressing vital conditions like safety (increasing the number of streetlights on dark roads) and learning (working with the school system to provide alternatives to school suspensions). And, she is not alone.
Stewardship is taking hold among countless other individuals, organizations, and networks across Delaware and beyond. In southern Wilmington, the South Bridge Community Development Corporation (SBCDC), whose mission is to create and support the local ownership of land, labor, and capital in the community, provides a striking illustration of how stewardship operates at an organizational level. An SBCDC project was originally focused on improving the exteriors of economically deprived and environmentally contaminated homes, but the organization realized that it could have a greater community impact by collaborating with fellow stewards, like government agencies and community-based organizations. Together, they are expanding their efforts to include improvements to home interiors, energy efficiency, environmental remediation, and more. The results will be safer, more stable housing for individual homeowners; increased property values throughout the community; and neighborhood beautification that benefits everyone. Ms. Dora, the SBCDC, and numerous other stewards in Delaware also benefit by working in partnership with Healthy Communities Delaware (HCD), a multi-sector, statewide network of communities and investors focused on expanding the vital conditions to improve health and well-being. HCD energizes a growing movement of stewards who believe we all have a role to play in creating an equitable future in which no one is left behind.
Between 2020 and July 2023, HCD has invested more than $3.5 million in community and individual stewards. Those partners have then gone on to secure more than $15 million in additional funding, thanks to HCD’s capacity-building investments. Virtually all HCD-funded partners have prioritized belonging and civic muscle as a vital condition worthy of their time and attention—demonstrating just how critical it is to the success of meaningful change in Delaware. Beyond Delaware, stewards across the country are building strong networks organized around shared values for equitable well-being. Many of those networks seem poised to expand even more, yet stewardship is still not the normative way of doing business. Efforts to drive transformative change remain disconnected and limited, as noted in ReThink Health’s 2021 Pulse Check on Shared Stewardship, the first-ever nationwide survey that explores the extent to which stewardship values, priorities, and practices are taking hold. To unlock America’s full potential for equitable health and well-being, changemakers across the country must do their part to ensure that shared stewardship becomes a rising norm.
Fortunately, a core set of stewardship practices has become increasingly well defined, in part through the work of The Rippel Foundation’s ReThink Health initiative. Together with thousands of collaborators, ReThink Health has identified essential stewardship practices that can generate lasting change in virtually any setting. These practices involve shifts in mindsets and behaviors--thinking and acting in ways that foster interdependence by connecting across differences, creating transformative opportunities, and learning and adapting.
The path to a thriving future, especially for those who have been left behind and undervalued, lies in adopting the practices of shared stewardship. The work taking place in Delaware is a powerful example of what it looks like when stewards at every level are equipped to drive positive change by thinking and acting beyond narrowly defined short-term outcomes. By embracing collaboration, expanding aspirations beyond singular programs, and committing to building belonging and civic muscle as the means for achieving greater equity, stewards can work together to produce sustainable, transformative change in their communities.