The Power of Humility


“Show up. Ask good questions. Then truly listen.” That’s how the staff of Health Literacy Media (HLM) approached their task a couple years ago as they entered into four Missouri communities where they hoped to enhance health literacy and improve health.

As a program director at the Foundation who had helped design and launch this project, I was unsure exactly how things would go in Hannibal, Monett, Poplar Bluff, and Salem. I was sure, however, that we had to start off right.

As we sat around the planning table months before, we all acknowledged that locals were the true experts on what their communities needed. They were the ones best qualified to determine how to make positive changes in their towns. So how could outsiders from the big city of St. Louis best collaborate with them to be successful?

HLM and MFH staff were well-versed with statistics and research findings about “what works.” Yet, we consciously aimed to put these thoughts in the back of our minds as we drove into each of these communities. It was critical to practice genuine humility to build rapport, confidence, and trust. To begin this work by doing nothing more than showing up, asking good questions, and then truly listening.

Over the next months, that is just what staff did – met lots of people, had lots of conversations, asked and listened – until each of the four communities grew to welcome us. This seemed to work because the “outsiders” always aimed their focus on building on existing strengths and fostering relationships that could continue long after this project ended.

Much of the progress was in that relationship building with and within each community. Individuals discovered they had common interests and built opportunities to combine their energy to benefit their towns. Each of the four also had funding that they could decide together how to best use to improve health and health literacy for their neighbors. The ideas they came up with were as varied as their communities – from a phone app designed to find local social services in Hannibal, to cooking demonstrations in Salem, to a wellness run tied into the local farmers’ market in Poplar Bluff. Monett began holding bi-monthly trail walks that grew from 15 participants to over 60!

Now that we have come to the end of our direct support for this project, I have had to work on my humility again. That is, because even though we will not be as involved, the four communities will maintain their relationships and their efforts. I will be spending my time on equally-important engagement, connection, and learning through other MFH efforts to improve health in Missouri. Meanwhile, I will be watching and listening with great curiosity about how each of these towns moves beyond this project to enhance health.

This is just a small example of how humility acts as a core value for us and our work. Through everything from our Community Convening grants, to our work strengthening public health infrastructure, to our Opportunity Fund, we are humble enough to acknowledge that we don’t always know what communities need to be their healthiest. One of the best things that we can do as an organization is to take HLM’s advice – “Show up. Ask good questions. Then truly listen.”

As part of Health Literacy Month, learn more about the distinct and remarkable work of each of the communities through our partnership with HLM. A new HLM piece will be published weekly throughout October.