hen planning started for a U West Valley campus focused on health, opportunity, and impact, our University of Utah Health and University teams knew we had an opportunity to co-design with the people who live on the west side. After building relationships, we’ve learned that co-designing with the community has meant intentionally building authentic relationships and partnerships so that what is built reflects, serves, and is integrated in the surrounding culture.
Building a freestanding hospital and outpatient clinic in West Valley is different than anything we’ve done before. The impact new developments have on the community can be profound. We wanted to think differently and approach the partnership in a new way.
About 30% of the west side population speak a language other than English at home, and 17% of the population is foreign-born. Our new medical center has to reflect this population’s different needs, so we prioritized community engagement long before we hired architects.
Build and leverage pathways for long-term engagement
Our initial approach was simple – we started by asking: “What does the community think?”
We started with focus groups to discuss our plans for a hospital and outpatient health center and quickly learned that there were more conversations to be had with the community. At this early stage, West Valley community members pointed us to a broader set of priorities, including education, non-displacement, and meaningful access to housing, health care, and career opportunities.
Partnering with University Neighborhood Partners enabled the creation of an ongoing feedback structure, so that now we have multiple touch points to gather community feedback throughout the entire process. University Neighborhood Partners has been organizing in the western side of the Salt Lake Valley for over 20 years and brings the University and the community together for resources in reciprocal learning, action, and benefit.
To guide U West Valley, we now have two main groups that serve complementary purposes. The U West Valley Steering Committee guides overall planning and convenes both organizations, community groups, and residents. This group is co-led by University Neighborhood Partners and University of Utah Health. It meets monthly and includes western side residents, West Valley City government, Granite School District, Salt Lake Community College, as well as non-profit organizations like Comunidad Materna en Utah and Comunidades Unidas.
The U West Valley Resident Committee is facilitated by University Neighborhood Partners. The resident committee drives their own agenda, sets individual and community goals, and is where we delve deeply into topics.
One of the first issues these committees have addressed was how we, as guests of the community, should talk about the West Valley area.
Initially, when University of Utah Health talked about the need for building a healthcare campus on the west side, we spoke first about health disparities. One of the key metrics that drove our initial work is that people living on the western side of the Salt Lake valley live 10 years less than people residing in zip codes on the east side.
Community members noted that this framing felt like it blamed the community itself, instead of systemic inequities that have caused these disparities. Focusing on words like “distressed,” “at-risk,” and “vulnerable,” can reinforce a narrative that the community is the problem and can overlook the richness of organization and problem solving that community members are already engaged in.
West valley area community members have helped us to re-evaluate how we think of their community, allowing us to celebrate their diversity, amplify their innovations, and be candid about where our systems have failed to show up. This critical first step in building trust with our community collaborators has created a vibrant space in which countless partnerships can form between West Valley residents and the U of U community.
Transparency is key
Transparency is at the core of our growth. We are working on new ways to continuously track suggestions and communicate our actions back to the community. So much innovation has come from their feedback. We’re now looking at sourcing ethnically responsive food and building a cafeteria that is accessible to the public. We also hope to empower women during their birthing experience by surrounding them with beauty, like a garden adjacent to the maternity ward, or an easily accessible outdoor area.
As we move out of the design phase and these areas start to take shape, we need to maintain our responsibility to the community.
We must bake community engagement into our standard operating procedure, so that we don’t forget to listen even after the hospital and wider campus is built.
Coming to the community to have one-on-one conversations with individuals has really helped us establish trust within the community. University of Utah’s Senior Vice President, CEO of University of Utah Health, and Dean of the U of U School of Medicine Dr. Michael Good met for hours with the U West Valley Steering Committee and residents. University of Utah President Dr. Taylor Randall has had ongoing lunches with our resident committee at local West Valley Locations, and Dan Lundergan, University of Utah Hospitals and Clinics CEO has hosted the resident committee to tour our main hospital and participated in numerous events. Getting to know each other has meant building authentic relationships and trust. Even if we can’t achieve everything the community wants, we have pathways to share with the community and continue to grow, together.
Through this journey we've learned that it's not just about starting fresh, but that we can also work to improve our existing system. We have an opportunity here to start fresh and, with the support and guidance of the community, build a campus from the ground up that reflects the surrounding culture. By embracing the diverse voices in our community, we can invest in health care systems that represent those we serve.