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Reflections from the Director

By on July 21, 2012

Ten years ago this month, Active Living By Design opened its doors – and a grand opening it was! We held six different events over a twelve-hour period: a breakfast open house at our new office; a community meeting with presentations from elected officials and other leaders at the theater across the street; walking tours of Southern Village, the new mixed-use development in which our office was located; a lunch meeting at a local church replete with healthy, delicious food; a panel presentation with some of the nation’s best scholars and practitioners addressing active community environments; and dinner with an array of mission partners to celebrate a successful day and the promise of what we hoped would be great things to come. In retrospect, the grand opening laid an important foundation by modeling so many of our core values:  Learning, networking and celebrating. Debating and inquiring. Engaging with the community. Collaborating across professional disciplines and sectors. Setting and meeting stretch goals. Walking the talk with respect to our own active living and healthy eating behaviors. Ten years ago, it was simply a vision. Ten years later, it is a movement.

Getting Started
Active Living By Design (ALBD), part of the North Carolina Institute for Public Health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, was launched in 2002 as a five-year, $15.5 million national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The focus was on increasing physical activity through changes in policy and the built environment – a significant departure from the more traditional focus on education and awareness as primary influencers of behavior change. The premise was relatively simple: To see what could be accomplished by 1) engaging 25 multidisciplinary partnerships representing a diverse array of communities across the country, and 2) offering small amounts of grant funding combined with technical assistance and consultation from an experienced group of project officers and a peer learning network. The execution of that vision, however, was a bit more complex.

Building It While Flying It
We soon learned that we were part of something big when a record-breaking 966 partnerships responded to our initial call for proposals…nearly 1000 coalitions, each comprised of five to fifty (or more) partners who were interested in engaging in this work – some with significant experience already, and some who were just getting started. The results of Active Living by Design, our first grant-funded initiative, are well documented in the December 2009 special issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Yet as I reflect now on our first few years, when I was deputy director and later, when I became director, I am grateful for so any things that were left on the editing floor: deputy directors of other RJWF national programs and mission partners who fielded my late-night calls and requests for advice; experts in the field who patiently explained the nuances of zoning and land use, and who helped me understand the connections between the familiar (public health) and the unfamiliar (city planning, transportation, local food systems and more); the most collegial, transparent and supportive funding partners imaginable; dedicated and passionate National Advisory Committee members who made us even better with their probing questions and recommendations; applicants and grantees who were on the receiving end of sometimes painful but always valuable lessons learned and who trusted us anyway; and a stellar and truly inspiring group of colleagues at ALBD who were willing to take a leap of faith and who have poured their hearts into this work every single day.  At the time, there was no playbook. There were few models. There was limited evidence. We got really good at building from scratch, adjusting on the fly and dealing with ambiguity. These attributes serve us well even today.

Expanding Our Focus
As we gained experience, other funders took note, and soon we were approached with new opportunities to engage in this work. Partnerships with the North Carolina Health and Wellness Trust Fund and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, for instance, allowed us to deepen our focus in our home state, develop a designation program recognizing healthy communities in North Carolina, and serve and learn from the special assets and challenges of working in rural areas. Engagements with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota helped us hone our community planning and assessment skills and, more recently, pilot new work in the area of sustainability planning. Collaborating with the WK Kellogg Foundation as part of the Food and Fitness initiative expanded our national focus and gave us a forum to focus on complex systems issues with a cadre of talented technical assistance providers. And the list goes on.

In addition to engaging directly with community partnerships and their leaders, participating in task forces and advisory committees, advising on the development of new funding portfolios, reviewing grant applications, publishing papers, participating in conferences and training programs, and engaging in healthy communities initiatives in our own counties, towns and neighborhoods are complementary activities that have contributed tremendously to our learning. As a result, while ALBD’s initial focus was on the relationship between physical activity and the built environment, our lens has expanded over time to include healthy eating, childhood obesity prevention, community engagement, health equity, systems change and sustainability planning. While we experienced growing pains at times, we planned for this expansion in a very intentional way to ensure that new areas of focus were simply more than “appendages” to our existing work but rather a vital part of our mission, culture and values.

Walking the Talk
Through it all, I’m proud to say that ALBD has maintained its commitment to walking the talk. We work hard and play hard. It’s not unusual to find most of us outside for an hour or so on Friday afternoons playing basketball, ultimate Frisbee or four square. We celebrate birthdays by honoring individuals in fun and creative ways with limericks, Mad Libs and challenges rather than with cakes and candles. We were among the first of our peers to develop (and actually implement) organizational policies related to healthy eating and active living. All of our staff are engaged in local and national volunteer work focused on community gardens, dog parks, planning commissions, parks and recreation advisory boards, school wellness policies, safe routes initiatives and more, where we struggle with many of the same challenges our grantees face: Limited resources. Philosophical differences. Translating among disciplines and various professional practices. Working with the community, not doing to the community. Addressing change from both the grass roots and the grass tops. Focusing on systems and social norms, not just temporary solutions that make us feel good in the short term. Quite simply, we lead by example.

Looking Back and Looking Ahead
As ALBD has grown, so have we. We are, as a team, healthier than we were ten years ago. Smarter about our limitations as well as the wisdom that resides in communities. More committed than ever to ensuring EVERYONE has the ability to live in healthy, vibrant neighborhoods. Deeply appreciative for the privilege of doing this work. We acknowledge that this movement has roots that formed long before we got involved, and we’re thrilled with the exponential expansion that has occurred since then. There are now thousands of funders, non-profit organizations, government agencies, coalitions and individual advocates who understand that where we live, work and play truly impacts our ability to lead healthy lives. They understand that the outcome of this work extends far beyond healthy people to include a stronger economy, safer cities and a more equitable future for all. And they – we – are taking action.

Over the next few months, we’ll be taking a look back at the last decade – at some of the people, leaders, stories, successes, lessons learned that have been so instrumental to this work. We’ll also share some of our thoughts about the future. We look forward to continuing to collaborate with you in this journey.

Sarah Strunk

Sarah Strunk

Sarah Strunk |

Strategic Advisor

Healthy communities networker, integrator and distance runner on the go.

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