The NCOHC Spring Convening-An Inside Scoop

Change is in the air for Spring, and it was certainly a prominent theme at the North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative’s successful Convening early this March, which saw over 80 participants ready to dive into a day of learning and connecting. We talked with Suzanne Martin, Director of Outreach and Engagement for the Collaborative, about the vision, execution, and takeaways of the day. Suzanne is also North Carolina’s state representative for the Oral Health 2020 Network which seeks to bring lasting systemic change to oral health.

The Who:

Over 80 participants joined the discussion, including representatives from community colleges, 3rd party payers, non-profit organizations, private dental practices, public health firms, faith-based organizations, and parent teacher associations.  Of those who attended, 80% said they would recommend the workshop to colleagues.

The What: applying national dialogue to the local context

As a liaison for nationally generated oral health information, NCOHC was compelled to create a space to discuss the implications of the FrameWorks Institute’s MessageMemo, released last May, which completely revolutionized how the nation’s oral health advocates should communicate oral health. While oral health care providers primarily focus on “three simple things” (i.e. brushing, flossing, and visiting the dentist annually), the memo reframes the way we should all be thinking about oral health and recognize social determinants of health that create and maintain systemic barriers. Oral health literacy is important for individual health behavior changes, but it is not the only key to unlocking the door to good oral health. Understanding the keys to oral health and the values of targeted justice and responsible management at the systemic level are imperative to achieve oral health equity for all North Carolinians. The Convening was a time for participants to learn about how the memo, and the corresponding communications toolkit, can be used in their respective organizations as well as to consider how to disseminate and implement these evidence-based practices.

As Suzanne put it, “We convene to help relay these messages at the national level and be the support our community partners need to implement change within their own agencies.”

The Why: shifting power to the community

The second half of the day was centered around a robust panel discussion on how to best engage those most directly impacted by oral health disparities – community partners. The panel featured Darlene Leysath (Executive Director of The Cornerstone CDC), Juvencio Rocha-Peralta (Executive Director of AMEXCAN), Melinda Wiggins (Executive Director of Student Action with Farmworkers), and Mohammad Mohd and Clauida Stakoe (youth staff from Youth Empowered Solutions – YES!). The group discussed how a top-down approach, in which funders identify the community’s needs, distribute resources and educational material, is a disempowering and unsustainable approach. They asserted community engagement is a marathon, not a sprint – one that can only be built upon on the foundation of authentic, not tokenized, relationships and community input from its onset.  Suzanne recalled, “[t]he room felt inspired and energized. The day was insightful for a lot of people who hadn’t previously considered, or even knew where to start, embarking in a meaningful grassroots approach to community engagement. It is really a discussion about charity versus justice. Charity equates to social service whereas justice leads to social change.” Participants reflected on how YES! staff brought a fresh and unique perspective many organizations in attendance had not previously considered. Youth and community members should be present, given equal voice and decision-making power, as experts for their constituent groups who represent the individuals who will be most profoundly and directly impacted by policy creation, program implementation and resource distribution processes.

stakeholders gather at the NCOHC Convening; picture by Suzanne Martin

The How: Next steps in supporting change

Change doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it happen without awareness and plans to move forward.

The Collaborative received feedback that the metaphor of the “keys and locks” as a highly effective visual for stakeholders to understand, and the notion of appropriate framing is one that needs to be used consistently. Attendees left with a deeper understanding of how to become a more effective oral health advocate, how to utilize the communications toolkit, and why it is critical to partner directly with community experts to help us achieve the overall mission of creating oral health equity for ALL North Carolinians. As the Convening participants begin to review their internal communications and policies they will use the day’s tools and discussions as a guide and the NC Oral Health Collaborative will continue to work with its members on how to tailor the reframed messaging for their communities and educate new agencies on how they can be part of this collective action.


The NC Oral Health Collaborative addresses oral health disparities by advancing known solutions that ensure access to quality dental care. For more information, please visit