Network Story: Connecting Health And Environment Solutions Across Sectors And Communities

August 24, 2018 1 Comment

This post originally appeared on the Health and Environmental Funders Network website. It was co-authored by Fred Brown, The Forbes Funds, President & CEO; Debra Erenberg, Cancer Free Economy Network, Strategic Director; and Ruth Rominger, Garfield Foundation, Director, Collaborative Networks Program. IISC was centrally involved with the launch of the Cancer Free Economy Network, serving as lead process designer, facilitator and network coach from 2014-2017. IISC is currently supporting the development of CFEN’s network strategy. 

We can do this! Within the philanthropy sector, there are so many solutions emerging around the world from people coming together to tackle the social, economic and environmental problems challenging humanity right now. We are in a time when connecting solutions together to align and reinforce each others’ progress is the most critical strategy across issue silos.

The Cancer Free Economy Network (CFEN) is one such example, where people with solutions — good ideas, strategies, initiatives, expertise, models, products and passion — are collaborating to build an economy that supports health and well being for all. These types of social change networks are held together with universal core values. In CFEN, the values are framed as simply as:

The water we drink, the air we breathe, and the products we use every day shouldn’t make us sick, cause cancer or any other disease.

The network is an open and flexible way to connect to an extended community of people who are building power together to phase out all toxic chemicals manufactured and put into industrial and consumer products that are making us sick and damaging our environment. Collectively, we know of many solutions that are readily available for moving the economy in that direction.

Like many social change networks that take a holistic, collaborative approach, people come together to connect and multiply actions aimed at shifting mindsets, structures and behaviors in many different aspects of the complex problem.

In the case of CFEN, this means there are teams from many organizations coordinating a variety of actions around toxics that together will:

  1. Change the Story to show how we can prevent many cancers by addressing the toxic chemicals that are currently accepted as part of our environment.

  2. Advance the science supporting health and preventing illness.

  3. Shift the market from toxic chemicals to a market producing safe, healthy, and affordable materials.

  4. Build the power to implement system changes across diverse constituencies.

Here are some of the immediate activities that have emerged from the multiple levels of collaboration within and outside of the network:

Strengthening Communications, Messaging and Storytelling: CFEN conducted messaging research nationwide and in specific communities to develop our “Messaging and Communications Guide: How to talk about cancer and toxic chemicals.” The Guide and a connected training have been made available to many aligned organizations and networks, and we continue to mine that data for further insights. We would like to build on this work with additional research into messaging to specific constituencies, including the cancer community, policymakers/opinion leaders, frontline communities and business leaders. Beyond messaging, we plan to develop a framework to tell stories that more effectively connect people to this issue and compel them to act.

Chemicals, Cancer & the Economy Training: This highly adaptable training curriculum is available in both English and Spanish. It has been piloted by organizations including Wind of the SpiritMake the Road New York, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. Our recent train-the-trainers event brought together nurses, NAACP leaders, and people who focus on training day laborers, domestic workers, nail salon workers and others whose work puts them at greater risk of developing cancer. This growing community of practice will continue to adapt the curriculum for various audiences and share new exercises and approaches with the group. The impact of these trainings will be assessed through a participatory evaluation process led by the Barry Commoner Center at Queens College in New York. We are eager to bring this training to a wide variety of audiences, conferences, and other gatherings.

Creating Incentives for Safer Alternatives: Our Market Shift team is working to identify and promote greater demand for safer alternatives to toxic chemicals to avoid regrettable substitutions. Simultaneously, our Supply project has conducted interviews and group discussions with chemical company executives to clarify the barriers that prevent them from switching to safer alternatives and look at ways to overcome those barriers. We’ve prioritized seven categories of cancer-causing chemicals to tackle first, in collaboration with other groups focused on specific chemicals.

Catalyzing Research: With the leadership of Margaret Kripke from the President’s Cancer Panel, CFEN’s Health and Science team convinced the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) to convene a stand-alone multi-day meeting in June 2019 on “Environmental Carcinogenesis: Pathway to Prevention” – the first meeting that AACR has ever held that is focused on the harms of chemicals that we eat, breathe, and drink. In addition, the team is planning a “Leveraging Cancer Research to Design Safer Chemicals and Products” workshop series prior to the AACR 2019 meeting.

Collaborating with Climate/Climate Justice Advocates: An ad hoc group within CFEN has begun identifying areas of work where a toxic chemicals and cancer lens could support the agenda of climate advocates and where climate-related work could further CFEN’s goals. Discussions are currently underway with the RE-AMP network, which takes a similar systems approach to its work on climate in the Midwest, and we have begun similar discussions with other potential partners.

Connecting with Frontline Communities

The founding group of CFEN made a commitment upfront to integrate diversity, equity and inclusion into the fabric of the network: the participants, the systems analysis, the strategies, projects and leadership teams. The commitment has enriched relationships, strategies and projects on the ground and across the whole network. Collaborative projects connecting community-based organizations from different areas of the country with a national network of scientists, sustainable business organizations, healthcare professionals, market campaigners, national policy and legal advocates, cancer-prevention organizations, and more.

One CFEN leader, Fred Brown from Pittsburgh, connected his local work with the Network, first in a pilot project that brought toxic chemical screening expertise together with participator training methods to engage members of his local network to address toxic chemicals in housing and childcare projects they were working on. The collaboration co-benefits have been rippling out ever since. You can read more about this work in an upcoming GivingInSight blog post.

How CFEN is Resourced

The CFEN project work is mainly co-funded by the member organizations themselves, through their programmatic projects, funded by foundations, membership fees and fees for services. The Garfield Foundation provides support for the network leaders, teams and staff to work together, strategize across silos, align and accelerate their work. As is the nature of the network, there is a great set of complementary short and long-term strategies lined up to advance our collective impacts.

If you are interested in participating in or supporting any of these initiatives, please let us know by emailing

With your support to connect more people to the solutions, together we’ll be able to fulfill the network’s shared goal:

“Within a generation, we will (work across sectors to) lift the burden of cancer and other diseases by dramatically and equitably shifting away from toxic chemicals to safer, healthier, accessible alternatives.”

For more information, see CFEN Overview *July 2018

1 Comment

  • Kevin McConnell says:

    Of course many of today’s diseases are a product of excessive behaviour, something that many people have no idea how to remedy, it is an impasse, a vicious circle.
    Fasting is seen as an outdated religious pastime no longer relevant to modern western society, but to encourage this as a health practise will hold valuable benefits for both the individual and the wider community, as it helps self respect, improves ones moral compass and curbs the desire for consumption.

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