Our Blog

Knowing When It’s Time to Refocus

By Risa Wilkerson and Niiobli Armah IV and on June 12th, 2018

Last year, the Healthy Places by Design team and board asked ourselves an honest question: “Are we having the greatest possible impact with the partners and communities we serve?”

The answer was clear: although we were making positive changes, we weren’t achieving our full potential as an organization. This wasn’t because of a lack of skill or leadership, but rather an outdated identity that was holding us back. Through internal exploration and external feedback, we emerged with a stronger focus on core strategies, and in April we announced our new name, Healthy Places by Design. We recognized that our season of change had come. And we want to share how we knew it was time to refocus.

First, this realization emerged from the transparent conversations made possible by a decade of collaboration.

Our early reputation and our previous name, Active Living By Design, were based on our seminal work to prove the need for and to create communities designed to support physical activity and healthy eating. During this time, Niiobli was a project director in Houston, TX for a Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) grant, which supported community members advocating for healthy eating and active living strategies. And as a project officer with our organization at that time, Risa provided technical assistance and coaching to Houston’s HKHC partnership. Ten years later, we are still working together, learning from each other, and holding each other accountable alongside our colleagues.

Second, we heard from community leaders that it was time to make a change.

In 2016, we reached out to communities we had worked with years before to ask how their work was being sustained. And we heard loud and clear that, while healthy eating and active living strategies had been key milestones, there were more pressing and complex issues affecting their health, like community safety, housing, and institutional racism. Over the past several years, we adjusted our organization’s skills and services to better reflect what we were hearing directly from community leaders. We realized that, as a team, our mission had always been community health. Active living and healthy eating are important strategies for that mission, but they aren’t the only ones.

Finally, we realized that we hadn’t shared our organization’s growth as widely as we could have.

We needed to make an external change to reflect our internal transformation. Our new name is evidence to ourselves and to those whom we serve that we have entered a new season in our work.

We’ll be the first to admit that we don’t have all the answers. As we grow into a broader understanding of what makes places healthy and equitable, we know that there will be unexpected challenges and surprising impacts. But by upholding our commitment to intentionality—to doing what we do by design—we strive to highlight the intersection of issues and disciplines; articulate the nuanced implications of these interdependencies; and be more sensitive to the complex issues within each community we serve.

We’re laser-focused on people and the places where they live, work, learn, and play. And we have evolved our approach to community health to ensure that those are places where everyone reaches their full potential for wellbeing. Not only are we better able to call out our privilege, but we are also able to use it more responsibly to translate visions of health into sustainable, community-led action. And we are committed to continued improvement, looking forward to ever-changing seasons of growth in the future.


In solidarity,

Risa Wilkerson, Executive Director, and Niiobli Armah IV, Board Chair

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

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

Niiobli Armah IV

Advisory Board Chair

Founder & Principal of We-Collab, a strategic equity firm that helps its partners and clients create tangible and transformative solutions that directly impact people and communities with the highest need.