I remember the day I first learned about traffic calming. I was practicing piano when I suddenly heard squealing tires and a crash. Leaping to a window, I watched our neighbor’s Buick jump the curb, roll onto the grass and stop a few feet short of our living room. After determining that everyone was safe, my dad said, “Well, that could have been VERY bad.” I went on with my day, but apparently he didn’t. A stop sign appeared at that intersection a few weeks later, and decades have passed without another incident—due in large part to my dad’s advocacy.
Although he is a man of few words, my dad’s words count. There’s always a lesson to learn, and many of them have influenced my work at Active Living By Design (ALBD). Here are a few.
After I finished my first junior high basketball game and scored 32 points before half-time, I eagerly awaited my dad’s praise. Instead, he reminded me to be a team player and to pass the ball.
Healthy community advocates know they can’t do it alone; it takes people working across disciplines to create sustainable change. Over time, I’ve learned when it’s more important to pass the ball—to another teammate, to one of our partners or to community members themselves—than to take the shot.
My dad liked to watch sports on Sunday afternoons, and I often stood between him and the TV to try to get his attention. But my agenda wasn’t always his agenda—at least not right then. By moving to the right (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively) and waiting for a commercial break, I learned how to have the most productive conversations with him.
How often do we try to lead with our own agendas? While ALBD’s work with one funding partner might focus on reversing the childhood obesity epidemic, the communities we support may be more concerned about reducing crime or creating jobs. These seemingly disparate goals can be aligned under a broader healthy communities agenda, but not until we’re willing to honor others’ perspectives.
My dad had many talents. He could grow delicious tomatoes from seedlings nurtured under basement lights during cold Chicago winters. He could plan a 10-day fishing trip, take just one duffle bag, and return with enough walleye to feed our family for months. He was not, however, able to turn those tomatoes into a great spaghetti sauce or to get the stink out of fish-encrusted laundry. He was clear about his limits.
Thanks to my dad’s example, I know what I don’t know, and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to ask colleagues like Marice Ashe, Makani Themba, Monica Vinluan and Julie Willems Van Dijk—smart, generous collaborators with broad, bold visions of health and longstanding commitments to equity—for help. In my work at ALBD, I’ve been lucky to stand on the shoulders of giants. And you can bet I try to pay it forward whenever I can.
Today, my dad is nearly 82. Despite frequent setbacks, he has been an example of perseverance and an inspiration while living through eight years of stage IV cancer.
Similarly, the stakes have never been higher for healthy community advocates. We’re armed with great evidence on how to improve population health, tools to help us evaluate and prioritize interventions, and deep expertise in the field. Yet even today, zip code remains a bigger factor in determining our health than our genetic code. This must change.
And that brings me to a final lesson:
One champion for bike and pedestrian safety can launch a national Safe Routes to School movement. Local leaders and residents can partner to restore the environment and create spaces that promote healing. And moms worried about junk food marketing can use their power to demand that companies change their practices. The possibilities are endless. What concerns you about your community’s health? Let’s do something about it! Future generations are counting on us.
Happy Father’s Day to dads everywhere! And guess what, Dad? I was listening.