The Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers (Camden Coalition) has long recognized the importance of partnering with complex care consumers to ensure that lived expertise informs our work. In 2015, we created a Community Advisory Committee (CAC) to formalize our interactions with consumers and community members. Our CAC advises and makes independent recommendations on our organization’s strategic direction and programming. The CAC helps the Camden Coalition remain responsive to the needs of Camden, and enables complex care consumers, who comprise a majority of the CAC, to take an active role in improving their own health and that of their families and community. 

Camden City is a majority Black and Latinx community. As in so many other cities and communities of color, the demographics and lived experiences of local public health officials and healthcare providers in Camden do not necessarily reflect those of the community they serve. This can present challenges for care organizations to build trust, engage in bi-directional communication, and authentically meet community needs. The COVID-19 pandemic intensified both the challenges and the necessity for complex care organizations to overcome these challenges. In response, the Camden Coalition, along with partners at Cooper University Health Care (Cooper) and the New Jersey Department of Health (NJ DOH), saw an opportunity to recruit CAC members and train them to become COVID Community Ambassadors. 

The Ambassadors program launched in February 2021 with the goal of empowering Camden community members to play a central role in community outreach and education about COVID testing, contract tracing, and vaccination as well as the availability of healthcare and social service resources. As trusted messengers, Ambassadors use their lived experiences to build trust and connections with other community members, and are able to effectively address misinformation, myths, and fears about COVID.

“Community Ambassadors are a team of advocates working collectively to move low income and minority communities forward,” says Cisily Brown, one of our Community Ambassadors. Cisily is also an alumni of our National Consumer Scholars program and part of our Amplify consumer voices bureau. “We help create a better quality of living in neighborhoods suffering from inaccurate information that causes a domino effect of fear. The Ambassador work instills leadership, awareness and education — values that bring forth positive changes.”

Ambassadors are recruited primarily from the Camden Coalition’s CAC as well as from the consumer base of our partner organizations and through other community connections throughout Camden. Ambassadors are paid a stipend to compensate them for their time, effort, and expertise. The Coalition created an Ambassador on-boarding guide with videos and educational and training materials compiled from several different resources such as the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) and the Coalition’s Medical Director, Dr. Jubril Oyeyemi. 

Once on-boarded, the Coalition supports Ambassadors through ongoing training opportunities to give them enough knowledge to feel comfortable doing community outreach and education. Ambassadors receive training on motivational interviewing and up-to-date information about vaccinations, COVID case counts, and variants, as well as resources available in the community. The Camden Coalition also uses vaccination rate and case count data from the NJDOH to help the Ambassadors target specific neighborhoods for outreach. 

The Ambassadors attend community meetings and events, participate in public speaking and advocacy opportunities, and engage in canvassing door-to-door to provide information and engage directly with other community members. Twice a month they meet with staff from the Camden Coalition and NJDOH to share back information they are hearing from other community members. This feedback has been crucial in overcoming barriers in the community. For instance, Ambassadors shared feedback that a requirement to bring a photo ID card to receive a COVID vaccine at state-operated vaccination sites was a significant barrier to community members who did not have ID, or had concerns about presenting ID due to their criminal history or immigration status. The NJDOH took the Ambassadors’ advice and removed mention of photo ID requirements from outreach flyers and changed policies so individuals seeking vaccines would not be turned away if they lacked identification.

“The value of being an Ambassador is being able to help the community with the right information so they can make the right choices,” says Michael Jackson, another Camden Coalition Community Ambassador and Vice Chair of the Coalition’s CAC. “We also get the right information from the community and give it back to the Coalition so that they can use the information to make changes that would benefit the community.”

Here are some lessons we have learned from our COVID Ambassadors program:

  • Community members are uniquely suited to understand the needs and assets of their community. Organizations have much to gain from working with consumers who can provide invaluable insights on program design, strategies for community outreach, health education, and addressing issues of access.
  • Communities that have been impacted by systemic racism and marginalization are often rightfully distrusting of systems of care. Partnering with consumers who share cultures, languages, and lived experience with other community members can help organizations build trust with the communities they serve.
  • To help build authentic and mutually beneficial partnerships with consumers, it is important for organizations to thoughtfully approach community engagement efforts by: 
    • defining the role and level of engagement consumers will have, 
    • compensating consumers fairly for their time and effort, 
    • ensuring diverse and representative participation of consumers, and 
    • ensuring that consumers are made aware of the outcomes of their work.

We at the Camden Coalition have benefited greatly from building authentic partnerships with people with lived experience of complex health and social needs across our community engagement programs, including the CAC, the National Consumer Scholars program, and Amplify, our consumer voices bureau. We hope others can apply these lessons to their organizations’ community engagement strategies in their continued efforts to partner with the communities they serve.