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Community Progress Lies Beyond Your Comfort Zone

By Risa Wilkerson on February 1st, 2017

As I reflect on 2016 (which all of a sudden seems like another lifetime ago) and the lessons it offered about how polarized and allegedly divided our country is, I’m reminded that almost everyone wants the same things. We all want to live healthy lives in thriving communities where there are opportunities for all of us to have good jobs, education, housing, fun, and a sense of connection without feeling unsafe or disrespected. It’s just our opinions on how we get there that differ.

Recently, my family and I traveled from our liberal-leaning college town and headed for our hometown, a beautiful, rural part of western North Carolina. It was the first time I’d been home since the election, and it gave me time to think about the recent blog post by my colleague, Joanne Lee. I considered my own bubble, echo chamber, social media filters, how I define “home,” and the people and information I seek out, gravitate toward, and am most comfortable associating with in social and professional settings. I realized then that the key word was comfortable.

The ability to choose comfort is a privilege. Some of us have the option to unfollow, change the channel, or just look the other way when injustices impact people or the planet “elsewhere.” Some of us don’t have that option because of the color of our skin, our gender, our age, where we live, or how we worship, just to name a few reasons. That should make all of us uncomfortable and want to find meaningful ways to respond.

The only way to make progress is to act—make a ripple, no matter the size, and listen to others who have pushed beyond their comfort zones. Those acts could include a simple phone call or visit to a policy maker to share your opinion, making a donation to an organization that advances your interests and values, volunteering at that organization, building new relationships in your community, or even running for office yourself! How often does success happen without first taking risks?

Active Living By Design (ALBD) has a history of “walking the talk,” and we know that some of the elements of the Community Action Model that we uphold and ask community leaders to embrace aren’t always easy to do in practice. But they are possible. We’re seeing communities across the country progress, partner, and prepare for sustainable change in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable. We are working with groups that are identifying and implementing healthy change strategies and creating (literal and physical) spaces for people to thrive. For example, in 2016:

  • The Alamance Wellness Collaborative and the Alamance-Burlington School System (ABSS) in NC worked with ALBD to open all elementary school playgrounds for community-use after hours (check out this video to learn more). This was only the sixth school system in North Carolina to create such a policy and the first to actively promote it with signage. School systems across the country are often most concerned with the challenges of liability and maintenance issues when considering such policies. Alamance County is no different, yet after a North Carolina policy was passed (SB315) that addressed some of those concerns in 2015, and local champions were at the table, ABSS took a good faith effort to move forward with the agreement. Now, families and children in Alamance County have more access to safe spaces for active play.
  • ALBD also led its latest convening with nine Healthy Neighborhoods partners in New York, who engaged in a variety of learning and networking opportunities with other guests during a two-day meeting in Syracuse. Participants explored nearby neighborhoods and learned skills for diving into uncomfortable conversations with diverse stakeholders around community safety. This opportunity for experiential learning enabled Healthy Neighborhoods partners from across the state to engage in a Peacemaking Circle, a traditional Native American approach to justice that is being used in a high-crime area to achieve community-based restorative justice. Participants remarked on how the approach differs from other legal processes—it’s less about assigning “right” and “wrong” and is instead about achieving consensus. This is a great step toward getting diverse groups speaking a similar language.

In 2017, let’s see if each of us can move beyond our comfort zones, making ripples where we can no matter how big or small, as we work to make healthier places to live.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

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