Have countries learned lessons on how to build on communities in dealing with health and social issues? Are the essential structures and attitudes in place to honour the active roles of communities in health and support them? Are our health systems really calibrated enough locally and do theyinvest in public health grounded in communities? Is community learning more profound in the global south, compared to the global north? Dr. Sanghita Bhattacharrya of the Public Health Foundation of India and livelong fighter for stronger community agency in health speaks with Dr. Asha George, South Africa Research Chair in Health Systems, Complexity and Social Change, and chair of Health Systems Global (2018-2020). The dialogue touches on the fundamentals for non-extractive community engagement, highlights the importance of trust, the values of listening, and the ‘histories of prior engagement’. It draws on examples from different parts of the world to stress the long haul of building community agency in health.