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United We Thrive, Divided We Fail

By on December 16, 2016



In early 2016, I shared my hope that in the new year we’d hear stories about deeper social connectedness that would outshine the media narratives in 2015 centering on loss, terrorism, and a general sense of fear. Unfortunately, division in our country seems to be growing, as is fear about the future.

With community-led change at the heart of our work at Active Living By Design, we know that the solutions to division and health inequity are found in collaboration, not isolation. Scarcity (whether perceived or real) impedes our better nature, and isolationism (in thinking and from each other) only worsens the many challenges that obstruct sustainable change. For our country to move forward, and for communities to thrive, it is more critical than ever that we encourage new and deeper collaborations.

Despite the challenges ahead, we are encouraged by the creative and collaborative approaches we’ve seen from our partners across the country. We were grateful for opportunities to learn from and support local communities in New York, Virginia, Oregon, Indiana, North Carolina, and elsewhere. Our team has witnessed the power of a foundation investing in a culture of learning to build leadership capacity, strengthen relationships, and improve the health of an entire region. We’ve learned how strategies to improve policies and environments in Buffalo, NY are being sustained and investments in distributed leadership are paying off. And we’ve heard from community leader Rocio Muñoz how people in Benton County, OR are more comfortable participating in a diverse community because of intentional efforts to create safe spaces and contextually relevant supports.

To further the conversation and build capacity for collaborative, community-led change, we launched our updated Community Action Model to highlight the importance of a community’s context, define six essential practices that undergird success, and highlight the 3P Action steps—Partner, Prepare, and Progress. Throughout the year we added new tools and resources to help communities understand the complexities of working collaboratively, including the Essential Practice Wheels and an updated Sustainability Framework. In our blogs, we also lifted important lessons about collaboration for the social sector to consider—actions that are more important now than ever. These include:

  • Don’t assume residents are buying what you’re selling. We often hear the value of implementing evidence-based strategies to improve health in communities. In theory, strategies are tested and proven effective, then applied in other communities. In reality, thebest strategies are only effective if they align with community priorities and the context of residents’ everyday lives.
  • Put community needs at the center of your work, which means taking time to include community members from the outset and get their input on which issues to address. This is important everywhere, including in rural communities.
  • Be vulnerable, embrace discomfort and difference to achieve health equity. Take a risk by asking for outside input—where the outcome of a decision cannot be predicted. Be sensitive about interconnections between health and other complex social issues like politics, race, money, and power. Ask questions to understand others’ perspectives.
  • Be generous in action and attitude. Listen first with a willingness to be changed, rather than just trying to change others. Assume good intentions.
  • Seek common ground. Resolve to better understand the ways in which race, gender, religion, income, education, sexual orientation, and other factors that influence equity are intertwined in complex ways. Take more time to see behind the despair, frustration, and anger before reacting. Lead with compassion and commonalities.

We will never have full mental, physical, and social health as individuals or as a nation if we are not unleashing the promise in us all. Active Living By Design is more determined than ever to build stronger collaborative learning networks and diverse partnerships within and across communities and organizations. And in 2017, we will seek new connections, allies, and thought partners in order to develop creative approaches that resonate with overlooked communities and unmet needs. We will continue to lift the values of abundance-thinking, radical inclusion, and the common goal of community well-being. Together, we can shift our culture to one of hope and health.

Risa Wilkerson

Risa Wilkerson |

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, simplicity seeker, and weekend wanderer.

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