August is Civic Health Month, a nationwide celebration showcasing the strengthening relationship between health care, healthy communities, and civic participation. In honor of this important month, we spoke with the Charlestown Coalition’s Sarah Coughlin to discuss the importance of civic engagement and its critical link to community empowerment. As director, Sarah oversees the coalition, working to end the cycles of addiction, poverty, violence and racism. She focuses on mobilizing the community to work collectively on developing programs and resources to address the root causes of top community health concerns.

Sarah began by sharing her thoughts on how civic engagement spans beyond one month. “Civic engagement and coalition work go hand in hand,” she said. “We believe that the people closest to the problems are closest to the solutions, but are often left out of the decision-making processes of which they are most impacted.” She admits, though, that she did not always recognize the significance of local elections, “Growing up in the suburbs, I only participated in presidential elections, but it was through my experience as a coalition leader that I came to understand how connected local elections are to the livelihood of a community.”

Over the last several years, as chaos has erupted in the political system, more people have been recognizing the power of voting. “They see the harm that can be done when there is no representation in their communities,” Sarah said. She noted that while people in power may tell the story in an inaccurate way, “Local politics can really combat this to ensure the right people are in power to make the decisions, all the way down and all the way up.”

Civic engagement and coalition work go hand in hand,” she said. “We believe that the people closest to the problems are closest to the solutions, but are often left out of the decision-making processes of which they are most impacted.

Sarah Coughlin
Director, Charlestown Coalition

At the Charlestown Coalition, there are plenty of opportunities for young people to get involved in local politics. “We get the candidates running for office to come to our youth groups. We don’t endorse anyone; however, we empower young people to think about what’s important to them and their community.” Sarah noted that while some may dismiss young people due to their age, youth can still influence votes by getting involved. Some community-based efforts that the Charlestown Coalition’s Turn It Around youth group participate in include: Get Out the Vote and registration events, door knocking, making phone calls, canvassing for donations, and spreading the word out about health inequities. The youth have also proven to be powerful change agents through their participation in the planning process of the redevelopment of the Charlestown Bunker Hill Housing Development

Social media has also had a significant impact on the ways in which people, particularly youth, get involved in their communities. Sarah said, “We have young people following candidates on social media, and that’s a beautiful thing. This helps get kids to see the power and influence of local politics, and it’s also empowering to see leaders who look like them and reflect their life experiences.”

Sarah talked about current health concerns in the local community and, in particular, how COVID has exacerbated these concerns, especially when it comes to addiction, mental health, violence, trauma and access to basic human needs. The one-square-mile community has had 31 overdose deaths and 5 homicides since the start of COVID. “We know the issues are greater than individual circumstances, and any real change will have to involve policy and systems changes which we mobilize around and advocate for regularly. We organized our youth and residents to participate in giveback and outreach efforts on Mass and Cass [Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston] where the needs have skyrocketed since COVID and resulted in inhumane conditions for people struggling with preventable and treatable health conditions. We supported advocacy marches and efforts at the State house. And our coalition will continue to fight for the dignity and humanity of all.” 

Sarah’s timely perspective as a coalition leader in the community brings to light the power of civic engagement. She is passionate about creating a safe space for community members to get support, mobilize and make an impact. The Charlestown Coalition continues to be a shining light promoting social justice and health equity, helping people to lead healthier lives in Charlestown and beyond.