A Diamond in the Rough: Marin City in 2016

I was given the opportunity in February of 2016 to sit for the first time in four years comfortably in the audience at the 18th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration in Marin City. I anxiously awaited my time in the schedule to speak about the youth social entrepreneurship and civic leadership program I administered the year prior. During that time I got the opportunity to reflect on the three and a half years I had spent working in the community. This community, unlike any other I have worked in, is one of the most dynamic and progressive as a unit. I have worked many places where innovation and forward thinking is present in pockets, but this community is moving forward as a whole. Perhaps it is because of the size and geographical location, but all things considered the progress has been incredible. Many health disparities still plague Marin City, but the promise to see an ACTUAL shift is off the charts. There are some key components I can point out that have lead to success.

Innovation in Civic Leadership

What a novel idea, innovative leadership in government!? This was in fact the core of the success for this  community. I was able to work alongside a core group of innovative individuals committed to do whatever it took to make change. I have always believed that no community should be at a disadvantage solely based on place and have worked to mobilize communities so they can create the change they want to see. Another novel idea; going into a community with no preconceived notions of what will work or be successful. In my role, I let the community including local organizations, businesses, partners, donors and the like dictate my course. Every community is entirely unique and has their own story.  I am always proud to be a part of their story telling process.

Innovation in Marketing & Communications

This is a perfect Segway. How we have known marketing for many years is now dead. I always try to explain to people that I do not have to be a subject matter expert to run any agency or communities marketing and why? Because marketing today is about an agency or community telling their story in their voice. Everything I learned, messaged, and conveyed in Marin City was based on those stakeholders who knew far more than I did. While I am known for being able to properly message and package information, the core story was not in fact mine. Marin City is an area with such a strong history and amazingly inspiring population that unfortunately had fallen victim to the story told by major media which highlighted only crime.

I did an entire blog on this a couple years back after the digital infrastructure was re-built. To recap, when I arrived in Marin City, what I saw was nothing like how the media portrayed the area. People asked me many times if I was scared to go to work, which I did not understand at all. I was working in this beautiful neighborhood with an amazingly diverse and rich population. What is scary about that? Back on topic, I am beyond elated by the current image of Marin City. It is amazing what digital outreach and proper messaging does. I could likely teach an entire course on just this (and am happy to btw), but marketing communities is a thing. It can forever change an agency and community. What started as a community at the mercy of popular media turned into one that has now been nationally recognized for their innovative programming and use of marketing to reach all of their stakeholders.

And what did it take in short?  It took a modern responsive website, a vigorous social media presence with proper messaging, strong engagement with news media, strong community engagement and outreach, and in general, a cohesive message that was presented to the public.

Innovation in Collaboration

A lot of what I know about collaboration I learned firsthand in Marin City. While I have many years of experience in community engagement, the level of collaboration in this area is quite innovative. I was recently in a webinar put on by the national offices of Medicare/Medicaid who has established (finally) that collaboration is key to success in public health. Welcome to 2016, this is a new idea!? I have been talking about the social determinants of health for over 10 years and was pleasantly surprised to be dropped into a community who had the strongest collaborative core I had seen firsthand. Marin City has put collaboration and wrap around services at the forefront of their community development. There is little to no need for further research on community based best practices as they are in fact DOING IT. Why not finally fund communities who are already doing what is best for them?

This level of Collective Action alongside proper messaging led to Marin City being one of the 15 finalists in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize out of 360 communities nationwide. Marin City received overdue and well deserved recognition.

Innovation in Policy

Marin City took a stance as a local government and an unincorporated district to protect the public health of their population. This issue is generally taken on at the County, State, and Federal level, Marin City took on public health locally. And why not? Many people who work in Marin City have many years working with the local population and understand the health disparities well. They were the first unincorporated area to become a HEAL (healthy eating active living) “City” and continued to pass a Wellness Policy regulated Sugary beverages, food, and smoking  on campus setting a benchmark for areas all over the country.

And now it’s time for innovation in funding & Technical Assistance

What is one of the major struggles of small communities? They cannot get on the radar of MAJOR funding sources. Many large funders including the federal government care about numbers far more than actual impact. The Marin City Community Services District’s growth alone is marked given the staff size tripling in just a couple years.

Small and rural communities have difficulty getting the major funding they need to build and improve innovative programming. I will withhold my general opinion about what is considered “public health innovation,” but the bottom line is, communities doing great things need real funding. “Community based best practices” cannot be set by large counties and in turn be considered applicable to small communities. EVERY community is different and has different dynamics, culture, and needs. Until major funding is channeled into these communities doing innovative things, they will face an uphill battle toward change. It also takes a well versed, neutral and strategic administration to carry this forward. A note for federal funders: California is expensive, but we still need help! Please note the standard of living. We need to redefine what “best practices” are as no broader community can define that for another.


It is easy to see how MaberMe, Inc. got its focus. Everything explained here was near theory until put into action. The highly innovative technical assistance provided in Marin City made a monumental difference. 

My first job in the public sector was technically at 15 as a camp counselor for the City of Petaluma and continued at age 19 as an intern for the Sonoma County Public Health department. Through all this time including that in Marin City, I recognized the gaps in marketing, communications, and operations within both the public and nonprofit sectors. Unfortunately in an area such as this there is such a high density of nonprofit organizations that they compete for the same donors and funding sources while most run inefficiently and without any other revenue model. I trust the intentions of their founders, but more importantly want to take an active role in helping them be better. It takes change and innovation which can be difficult, but as I watch many nonprofits dissolve, it is clear they need business development services.

It became very clean in Marin City how far proper marketing and communications could go. Imagine how this could be scaled!? We believe in good marketing for good people with a hard reality of compliance, accountability and transparency. For those who have good intentions and are seeking real impact, these changes come easy. It also takes a long term commitment because things do not change at a community level quickly. Together we are better.

 Photo taken by Ericka Omena Erickson

Photo taken by Ericka Omena Erickson