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Leadership Wisdom from 30 Healthy Community Leaders

By Risa Wilkerson on March 11th, 2014

Who is behind the rapidly growing healthy communities’ movement across the United States? Who are the leaders bringing their passion and expertise to improve the policies and environments of their neighborhoods, cities and regions? What lessons have they learned?

Thirty leaders were interviewed as part of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) initiative. HKHC was a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation whose primary goal was to implement healthy eating and active living initiatives that can support healthier communities for children and families across the United States. The program placed special emphasis on reaching children at highest risk for obesity on the basis of race/ethnicity, income and/or geographic location.

As HKHC Project Directors, Project Coordinators and partners spoke up about their personal journeys, observations and lessons learned, several notable key themes emerged.

Draw on Early Experiences:
It’s tempting to think about professional training as beginning in college or with early job experiences. While those are important components, leaders draw strength from making connections between early life and professional passion. Here are a few examples:

Genoveva Islas-Hooker (Central Valley, CA) remembers accompanying her mother to United Farm Workers (U.F.W.) meetings as a first grader, doodling the U.F.W. eagle and feeling pride in her community, knowing this group was standing up for her parents. She wanted to help, too.

Samina Raja (Buffalo, NY) knows what it feels like to be poor, and what it is like to have limited access to healthy, affordable food. “As a parent, I shouldn’t have to think about how many buses I have to take to get to the grocery store. I didn’t own a car and I had to come up with strategies… something as ordinary as buying food became this big task in my life.”

Find the Connections:
While some local leaders’ careers are firmly rooted in public health many have worked in a variety of seemingly unrelated fields. Upon reflection, however, all of these leaders noticed how their diverse experiences enhanced their ability to connect partners and issues in relevant ways.

Ned Barrett (Spartanburg County, SC) began his career as a teacher. “Essentially, I conducted five community meetings a day in the classroom for 18 years. It’s easy for me to create an atmosphere where people can be comfortable with different, controversial subjects.”

After starting her current position at the United Way, Megan Joseph (Watsonville and Pajaro Valley, CA) convinced the organization to support community engagement related to Assembly Bill 109, which ensured that low-level offenders serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons, and to work on a county-wide youth violence prevention program. “It’s all about equity. That’s the common denominator in all my work.”

Make Room for Others:
Finally, when leaders to listen well, and make room for others to engage, it can go a long way toward creating sustainable change. This includes respecting a neighborhood’s history and culture, sharing the power with those for whom this work is intended to benefit, and working to understand community members in authentic ways.

“I made a promise to [the] communities that 100% of the grant would be directed to their neighborhoods and only theirs,” said John Bilderback (Chattanooga, TN). “And that we’d be transparent. They could see the budget at any time. We even developed a Healthy Living Fund with match dollars that they have control over.”

“It represented a challenge to me as an educated, white female, hired to be the conduit of resources on behalf of communities, primarily of color,” said Eleanor Dunlap (Greenville, SC). She resolved to go door to door to talk with residents about their needs and then, with help from others, overhauled the grant so that each community could utilize resources in ways that were meaningful to them.

To gain more leadership wisdom, please read the full collection of HKHC Leader Profiles.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

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