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A Legacy of Joyful Work

By Risa Wilkerson on October 14th, 2015

It’s truly an honor to be the new executive director of Active Living By Design (ALBD), especially as I reflect on my early years of healthy communities work and how that work has evolved since then.

One midnight on New Year’s Eve in Michigan, I stood at the starting line of a 5k. And no, I wasn’t crazy enough to race in that frigid weather—I was the organizer. At the time, I was the executive director of the Fitness Council of Jackson, a nonprofit organization promoting health and fitness through programs and events. As I stood watching runners warm up wearing everything from shorts (yes, in the snow) to hoodies, I knew that we weren’t creating true community change. Instead, we were serving the already active.

Then, I learned a new way of looking at healthy community change.

Only a few years after that midnight race, I directed an Active Living by Design project in Jackson, which supported a community partnership to create a culture of walking and biking. Seeing the connection between community design and healthy choices for the first time was eye-opening, and I was thrilled to be part of a group testing that new paradigm.

At our first gathering in Washington, DC, I felt like a college freshman again, learning names and backgrounds, and meeting the ALBD “advisor” each of us would have. We found common ground: for example, who was serving rural, suburban or urban communities; who came from public health, transportation or government; and who had other mutual experiences, like our stage in life or personal interests. People were eager to share with each other, and new friendships formed quickly. Experiential learning was a high priority, as were group physical activity breaks (with so much laughter during volleyball and ultimate Frisbee), healthy food and, of course, a dance party. Throughout the year, we stayed connected by email, phone calls and intentional pairings by our project officers. Every year at our annual grantee meeting, we met again to share and learn.

Above all, we were challenged to change the story of telling people to be active to one of helping people be active through supportive policies and environments.

Throughout our five years together, we were immersed in a new culture of work.

 The ALBD culture permeated every aspect of that original project and overflowed into all of my work since then, at local, state and national levels. What is the ALBD culture? It’s one of collaborative learning which appreciates that absolutely everyone has wisdom to bring to the table. It’s one of lifting stories (of successes and missteps) so that when you’re facing opponents or obstacles, you know that you’re not alone and that others will share ideas or just be a listening ear. It’s a culture of facilitative leadership, which the ALBD team models well. I experienced the dynamic force of intentional power shifting—of giving others the opportunity to lead—which deepens the impact of individual leadership and better ensures the longevity of a community’s hard work.

And above all, it’s a culture full of energy and joy.

I’ve never had more fun learning than when our cohort of communities met each year for a grantee meeting. Time and again people said it was the best meeting they’d ever attended, and I believe it was because those meetings were connected to meaningful, ongoing and joyful work.

This work is complex, yes. But it should also bring a smile to your face.

 It should make you excited to wake up every morning. It should connect you to amazing people. It should generate a sense of both pride and humility—just like it has for me with a team of incredible people in an organization built on a culture like that.

So, as I reflect on the opportunity to serve as ALBD’s next Executive Director, I remember the feeling I first had as a grantee. It was intoxicating to be on the forefront of a movement: to realize we were creating a deeper approach to effect community change and strengthening the physical and social connectivity of our neighborhoods and nation; to feel strong optimism for the future and believe that, collectively, we will make our world a healthier, happier, more equitable place.

And together, with my inspiring colleagues, our smart partners and committed local leaders, I have no doubt we can keep pushing the field forward with new opportunities and new paradigms that will ensure such a future for all.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

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