Livability Labs bring Muskegon County leaders together to solve community challenges

An annual collaboration among a slew of cross-sector organizations and community members has created 15 teams working to develop solutions to community challenges in Muskegon County.  
This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

An annual collaboration among a slew of cross-sector organizations and community members has created 15 teams working to develop solutions to community challenges in Muskegon County.  

That collaboration, known as the county's Livability Lab, was originally spearheaded by the Muskegon Community Health Innovation Region (CHIR), but is now led by Access Health. Health is one of five key focus areas for the effort, alongside education, economics, safety and security, and social connections. Under those five umbrellas, Livability Lab teams address issues including health disparities, the environment, equity, housing, finance, social services, youth services, and neighborhoods.

Each Livability Lab entails a 100-day process. Samantha Cornell, director of Muskegon CHIR and director of community-based services for Access Health, describes that process as an opportunity "to make Muskegon County a better place to live — to both initiate and accelerate that change."

"The work that happens within the lab often does extend beyond that 100 days," she says.

Muskegon's first Livability Lab convened in 2019, and labs have continued on an annual basis since then. The lab's work each year is directed by the results of a community survey, one-on-one interviews, focus groups, input from community-based organizations, and quantitative data, such as census data, graduation rates, and birthing outcomes. Teams are formed to address the areas of need that are identified.
A Livability Lab meeting.
"Each year when we get together, we move some of the rocks from the piles of barriers. We move them off those barriers, and we make incremental success," Cornell says. "We celebrate those small wins and support them as they grow and become big wins."

Defining livability as "economic prosperity, social stability, educational opportunity, environment, and more," the lab members first took time to focus on the county's history. Once the home of Hopewellian Indigenous people, and more recently the Odawa and Potawatomi (Anishinaabe), the area was first explored by the French in the 17th century and colonized by Europeans in the mid-1800s. Large numbers of African-Americans moving to the area from the South were joined by Mexican-Americans and Appalachians. Today, the county's population is 75.6% white, 14% Black, 6.4% Latinx, 3.6% multiracial, 0.9% American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.7% Asian.

"We take the approach of making sure that we have diversity of voice and cross-sector representation creating and driving the process," Cornell says. "The lab is guided by a core advisory team. We have schools represented, small business, a local restaurant, health care, United Way, our health department, labor, a faith-based representative, and representatives from neighborhood associations."

Doula Initiative team seeks to reduce infant mortality disparities

One of the Livability Lab's key initiatives has been to address Muskegon County's alarming racial disparities in infant mortality. In Michigan, Black babies die at a rate 2.8 times higher than white babies during the first year of life. But in Muskegon County, those statistics are even more bleak. The infant mortality rate among Black babies is four times as high as for white babies in the county. Including doulas on families' prenatal and birthing care teams has been proven to improve outcomes among all babies, including babies of color. The Livability Lab's How YOU Birth Doula Initiative team seeks to "reduce health disparities by improving birth outcomes in populations of color through coordinated doula access and culturally competent care." In addition to data on infant mortality, the initiative found that 49% of Black births in the county had inadequate prenatal care.
A doula training organized by the Livability Lab's How YOU Birth Doula Initiative.
With support from the Livability Lab, the doula initiative was able to train 11 new birth doulas in May 2023. An August 2023 training prepared another 10 or so postpartum doulas to support parents with breastfeeding and meeting the other complex needs of parents and newborns.

"With the Livability Lab, we got a coach, and we got help writing a business plan. We got connected to a lot of people in the community that were able to help us push this initiative to where it is today," says Hillery Ross-Furse, chair of the Livability Lab executive committee for the team and community health worker lead with The Health Project/Trinity Health. "We had been putting together this initiative for about two years. Sometimes you just need a kick in the butt. The Livability Lab gave us that."
A doula training organized by the Livability Lab's How YOU Birth Doula Initiative.
The Doula Initiative team has also initiated conversations with doctors, nurses, and other obstetric staff to share how doulas improve outcomes for both mothers and babies. And they conduct outreach to expectant parents. Ross-Furse says the initiative's first outreach event in early August yielded 15 referrals.

"Since then, we've had about five babies," she says. "And we have more families that we have kind of triaged and they're going through the process to get paired with a doula."

Giving back to community just got easier

After retiring from an over 40-year career in adult and community education in Kalamazoo and Muskegon, Doug Wood put his expertise and passion for community involvement to work with the Livability Lab. In 2019 and 2020, he worked with the lab's Increase Employment Opportunities via Expungement team. This year, he serves with the New Generation of Leaders team, which is bringing students together to identify problems in their schools and communities, and then develop action plans to address them.  

"I love the process. I love the idea of bringing people from all around the community," Wood says. "I'm an educator. I'm used to sitting around and talking to other educators about how to solve the world's problems ... but our ideas are always better when we bring in people from other parts of the community. So, when you identify an issue, whether it's a health issue or an income issue or an education issue, there are other people, other parts of our community, that are also interested in being part of the discussion, part of the solution."
A Livability Lab meeting.
The New Generation of Leaders team includes educators, social workers, youth leaders, and, perhaps most importantly, youth.  

"You get so many more different perspectives when you follow a process that brings people together to examine what the root causes are, where the problems originate, and how to address them," Wood says.

Wood's work with the Livability Lab reflects his calling as an educator, his standing as a Muskegon Rotarian, and his United Methodist faith's commitment to social justice. For him, the Livability Lab was a perfect vehicle for him to take action in his community.

"If you're someone who wants to get involved in the community, it can be hard to find a place that you can attach yourself and become involved," Wood says. "I encourage all my Rotary friends to pay attention to what's going on in the Livability Lab, because there are really good opportunities to get involved."

During Wood's first year with the Livability Lab, he was working at an expungement event, helping qualified individuals get their criminal records wiped clean. He was able to help a young mother clear her name.

"She had made a mistake, but the mistake was not going to define the rest of her life. The process allowed her to take a new step into a new opportunity," Wood says. "Some people were in situations that were pretty desperate and difficult to help, but there was a whole layer of people who we were able to help who didn't know that help was even available to them, that it was even possible. The doors that opened for them after they followed the process, the relief on their faces — they became aware that they now had opportunities that they didn't have before."

Year to year, the issues addressed through the Livability Lab may shift. But each of those issues has been raised by people living in the community — and each is addressed through collective action that empowers community members.

"The goal of the lab is really to improve the quality of living in Muskegon County in a way that makes it possible for everybody to have the opportunity to reach their optimal health — physical health and mental health," Cornell says. "Reducing barriers, supporting community objectives, and priority-setting incrementally, one step at a time, all help continue to make Muskegon County a thriving and vibrant community."

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at or

Livability Lab photos courtesy of Muskegon CHIR. Doula training photos courtesy of Hillery Ross-Furse.
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