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DIY Community Health

By Risa Wilkerson on August 1st, 2019

Alamance County, NC advocates are practicing a culture of learning with a do-it-yoursel(ves) spirit.

DIY ingenuity seems to be everywhere. If you have a leaky dishwasher, a broken tail light, or want to build a raised garden, all you have to do is watch a “how to” video online. Before you know it, you’ll think you’re a plumber, mechanic, or gardener! And if you successfully pull off projects like these, you’ll also feel satisfied and proud (speaking from personal experience: I’ve done all of them). Not just because you saved money, but also because you taught yourself a new skill. And most of the time, you can transfer or adapt those new skills to other areas of your life.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on collaboratives, coalitions, and other groups that unite around a specific mission. I’ve asked myself, “What makes some groups effective while others fail?” There is obviously more than one answer to that question. But based on years of supporting community-led efforts at Healthy Places by Design, at least one essential practice is evident to me: prioritizing and creating a culture of learning.

These groups are working on projects that, unlike fixing a leaky dishwasher, can’t be finished in a day—they’re facing complex problems that impact the health of people who live in their communities. However, improving community health is a trial-and-error process that, like many DIY projects, requires helping hands along the way.

Over the past four and a half years, I have worked with Impact Alamance and Healthy Alamance to build and support a group that has put a culture of learning into action: the Alamance Wellness Collaborative (AWC) in Alamance County, NC. This coalition has been meeting regularly since 2015 and continues to thrive. AWC’s mission is to “promote and advocate for the development and improvement of safe and accessible environments that support a culture of active living and healthy eating for all in Alamance County.”

During AWC’s first year, Healthy Places by Design spent a lot of time getting everyone in the group on the same page about what it means to work on policy, systems, and environmental changes. While this was already a familiar concept to some of the group’s members, reviewing it helped ground everyone in shared language and understand why their collective efforts would go beyond programs and individual behavior change. Once there was understanding about the concepts, it took a bit more time for the Collaborative’s members to consider how they could implement changes. After all, many were government employees and couldn’t “advocate.” Sticking with a learning process in order to reconsider their roles in creating change required more patience and additional learning. The Collaborative continues to acquire transferable skills that include implementing tobacco-free parks policies, laying the groundwork for increased connectivity, re-visioning the streets, and hearing lessons from inspirational communities like Franklin, TN.

An openness to learning leads to new knowledge and the willingness to share it. If knowledge is power, then creating a culture of learning is one way to shift power and decision-making processes from formal leaders to professionals, health advocates, and other community members.

In the not-to-distant past, it wasn’t uncommon to hear decision makers in Alamance County say, “That’s not how we do things here.” That sentiment, which is not at all unique to Alamance County, can be a barrier to creating a culture of learning. But in Alamance County, that mentality is shifting. Maybe it’s because of how AWC members have energetically shared their insights, or maybe it’s simply out of necessity. (Remember how I said that learning a new skill can not only feel good, but can also save you money? It’s no different for a community.) Some of the most experienced decision makers who have years of success under their belts are still open to seeing new perspectives, hearing examples from similar communities, and considering how to apply them in Alamance County.

Thanks to the resources and leadership of Impact Alamance, we’ve been able to bring experts—the in-person version of a “how to” video—to town.

In 2018, Healthy Places by Design invited national walking expert Mark Fenton to lead a walking audit. He provided compelling examples and generated enthusiasm for making Alamance County more walkable through policy changes and pilot projects. This year, Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns delivered a straightforward argument for why it makes economic sense to create a more vibrant Alamance County. Although the presentation styles of these two experts resonated with different audiences, those differences helped reach a more diverse group of elected officials, professionals, and community leaders who then went back to their day jobs with new ideas.

They thought “We could do that!” Or, “That was nice, but how would we do that here?” They pitched “What would Alamance County look like if…?” to one another. They considered how to adapt the examples to their context. They called peers to brainstorm. They wanted to know more about how the AWC could help advance these efforts. They’re exploring field trips to neighboring communities. AWC members are now leading in ways they weren’t before. And all the while, they’re still meeting monthly to advance the Collaborative’s mission.

This is what a culture of learning looks like.

With every new skill that AWC members and community leaders learn, they strengthen a culture of learning and deepen their capacity to make Alamance County a healthier place to live. DIYers are everywhere: sometimes they come in the form of national experts, and sometimes they look like engaged residents rolling up their sleeves together.

The most important thing is to keep seeking out those “how to” experts, remembering that you could be one too.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

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