By Risa Wilkerson on January 13, 2017
Niiobli Armah IV is founder of We-Collab, a social change organization that works across public and private sectors to accelerate innovation in local communities. He works at Bloomberg Associates, an international consulting firm that helps city governments improve the quality of life for citizens.
Niiobli and I have worked together for years and I know he has a heart for people and social justice. I am thrilled that he recently accepted the role of Active Living By Design (ALBD)’s Board Chair and could think of no better way to start the year than by having a conversation with him.
Risa: Hi Niiobli. It’s great to talk with you. You have a strong background in health policy, community advocacy, and social justice. What (or who) most influenced you to dedicate yourself to these issues?
Niiobli: Always good talking with you. Two events that stand out as undeniable calls to action for my life and career were during my freshman year of college when I visited the Alex Haley Farm for a Children’s Defense Fund training. I also witnessed the events of Hurricane Katrina firsthand. Going back further, I remember growing up in an extremely diverse environment—equity and inclusion were not exceptions, but the standard. My mother’s Southern roots and my father’s West African (Ghanaian) heritage meant that they were welcoming to the many different friends I brought into our home. The unique proximity I had to people from both similar and different backgrounds allowed me to witness the complexity of stratified opportunity.
Risa: I imagine it’s given you a clear idea of what you’d like to see in the world. What vision are you personally working toward?
Niiobli: Closing the gap between those who make policy and the communities affected by those policies. I think collaboration is important for making this happen, but not forced collaboration. Rather, the kind that comes from authentic engagement. It always surprises me how little individuals (or institutions) know about other sectors or movements tangentially connected to theirs. We need better alliances between those working on social issues and the people immediately impacted by those same issues.
Risa: I completely agree. And that’s one of the reasons we’re so glad you agreed to be on our board and to play a leadership role as our chair. What opportunities do you see in this role to further your vision?
Niiobli: ALBD has always felt like home to me. Almost a decade ago, I was a grantee in the Healthy Kids Healthy Communities portfolio (funded by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), which seeded efforts all over the country that are still thriving. My hope is to share the ALBD narrative around not being afraid to fail. ALBD listened and responded to the field by altering the approach to community change work. ALBD’s Community Action Model provides an effective framework for facilitating community change, and there were many lessons learned during the development of this resource. I hope to be one of many voices that can share the story of not only ALBD, but the many communities practicing the Community Action Model.
Risa: You already are a very strong voice! What do you believe is the most important thing healthy community advocates and leaders need to prioritize this year?
Niiobli: My ethos for this work is collaboration. When folks gather around the table with people who they don’t usually work with (or even sometimes agree with), there is an opportunity to build capacity by leveraging diverse perspectives and skill sets. Community advocates need to understand their responsibility for growing the capacity of people and institutions. Capacity building is about taking the long approach and not falling victim to reactionary responses. In the digital age, we have an abundance of riches; we’ve never had this much connection, technology, and resources to build equitable communities.
Risa: Well said. What are you most hopeful about as we look forward?
Niiobli: I think a new type of leadership is emerging across the country. Not of individuals but of networks which are stepping up to explicitly state “Equity Matters.” I don’t think the work is going to get easier, but I welcome those who are raising their hands and taking action.
Risa: Thanks, Niiobli. Always a pleasure. I look forward to continued collaboration with you this year.
Niiobli: Thank you Risa. I am looking forward to doing great things with you, the board, and the ALBD staff this year.