Making Connections Across “The Field”: The DASH Mentor Program and All In Affinity Group Cross-Over

Author: Susan Martinez, DASH Program Associate

Spaces for peer-to-peer connections continue to help facilitate learning and engagement in Data Across Sectors for Health (DASH)’s funding programs, whether within or across the field of data-sharing for community health. DASH grantees are typically encouraged to join the All In: Data for Community Health Network and participate in learning collaborative offerings, including the All In Affinity Groups.

For the DASH Mentor Program, the overlap of Affinity Group meetings over the program curriculum led to additional peer connections made by Mentees with other DASH grantees and All In members. Likewise, All In members got a sneak peek into DASH Mentors’ subject matter expertise as they led Affinity Group meetings.

As a partner and co-founder, DASH encourages grantees to share their learnings from their local communities to All In as a way to develop the field of data-sharing for community health. As DASH says, “the wisdom is in the room,” and practitioners who join the All In Network bring varying experience in data sharing and community health. For All In members, particularly DASH grantees, the annual All In National Meeting serves as an opportunity to pitch sessions and shape future programming. At the 2019 National Meeting, All In piloted the idea to formalize peer discussion groups before launching a formal program in 2021.

The peer-sharing format has worked on a smaller scale in Mentorship programming: Mentees are paired with a DASH Mentor and join a cohort of other peers. Groups meet regularly to discuss any trouble issues in their projects and hear from their Mentors’ expertise to help them progress towards project goals.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mentee collaborations pivoted their work to the virtual space, which meant it now became harder to connect with their collaborating partners, much less their cohort peers, to share or talk through any issues. Though the DASH Mentee meet-up was well-received, Mentees expressed wanting more connections during their final program evaluations. One Mentee shared, “I would have liked to have spent more time during the group coaching calls learning about what my peers were struggling with, to allow for more time for peer-to-peer coaching.”

When the All In Affinity Groups launched as the third cycle of the DASH Mentorship, we saw the opportunity to add the Affinity Groups as a supplement to Mentorship activities. “When we crafted the Getting Started toolkit that accompanied Mentees’ award letters, we made sure to say the Affinity Groups were an optional activity.

We also encouraged DASH mentors to check in with their Mentees to ask about their participation,” Susan Martinez, DASH program lead for the DASH Mentor Program, said. “We were pleased to see that members from 18 different Mentee collaborations participated in different Affinity Groups.”

Some DASH Mentors helped shape the All In Affinity Groups as subject matter experts. The groups led by DASH Mentors emphasized a more collaborative, peer-driven atmosphere than a typical Mentee cohort meeting. Additionally, these spaces were also more technical and specific to particular sectors. The Corporation for Supportive Housing hosted a “Leveraging Health and Housing Data” Affinity Group that attracted a variety of practitioners within the housing sector and maintained an interest in data sharing. Likewise, United Way Worldwide hosted the “United Ways and 211s” Affinity Group to tackle concerns specific to these partnerships. 

Some Mentees attended, wanting to supplement their DASH Mentor’s learnings. For instance, Mentees from the Alabama Department of Mental Health and the United Way of Yellowstone County attended the Community Indicator Dashboards Affinity Group led by one of their DASH Mentors from the Drexel University Urban Health Collaborative.

Miriam Castro, Program Manager at DASH and All In Affinity Group Program Coordinator, shared, “One aspect that makes this program unique is the opportunity for mentors and mentees to learn, share and collaborate. The 2021 Affinity Groups played an important role in helping facilitate connections with collaborations, form relationships and hear from others at all levels of this work, outside of their Mentor cohorts.”

In an exit survey conducted to collect program feedback, 37% of Mentees reported that they engaged in Affinity Groups and planned to continue to do so. Another 35% said that while they hadn’t participated in an All In Affinity Group, they planned to do so in future rounds. Mentees found some of the benefits included making additional peer connections outside of DASH and hearing outside perspectives on their projects. “The Affinity Groups were framed as supplemental opportunities, not at all required,” Martinez shared, “but it seems Mentees appreciated the additional opportunity to dig deeper.” 

Just as DASH Mentees learned from other subject matter experts throughout All In, the greater All In network gained valuable expertise from working with DASH Mentors. Participants walked away with a sharper focus on implementing a goal or rethinking an approach. For instance, one participant from the Leveraging Health and Housing Data Integration to Achieve Positive Outcomes for Vulnerable Populations Affinity Group noted, “Building trust with our community partners will be our greatest challenge. Our goal will likely be [modeling] this new method of sharing data to the rest of our partners to build trust.”

Quinton Askew, a participant in the United Way & 211 Partners Affinity Group, shared, “The Affinity groups [..] provided a safe space to share issues, successes and gain insight from others who are doing the work within 211’s, UW’s and other community agencies.  I appreciated learning and connecting with others because my previous experience was not coming from another 211 when I took the leadership role in MD.  I was able to learn from those on the ground and with many years of experience to pull on with all my crazy ideas!”

With DASH funding cycles such as the Learning and Action in Policy and Partnerships and the Asset-Based Community Development Cohort programs underway in 2022, there will be more opportunities to see how peer learning can enhance program goals. When asked about the future of the All In Affinity Groups, Castro shared, “[We now have] a greater understanding of Affinity Group models, areas for growth, process improvements, and a greater understanding of inputs needed to sustain future iterations. Ideally, we want to get to a model that supports year-round meetings so that DASH awardees can continue to benefit from peer learning spaces long after their awards are over to support their continued progress.”