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Reflections on the Adventures of Leadership: An Interview with Risa Wilkerson

By Sarah Strunk on August 11th, 2021

What does it mean to be a leader of social change? To engage with a team and partners under changing social conditions in ways that result in meaningful impact without burning out? As a long-time organizational leader, I have learned much through my own experiences. I also learn from and grow with a range of leaders – change makers in formal and informal roles who are pushing for transformation (many of whom I interviewed in this blog series). While their personal stories and professional paths are different, these leaders all exhibit a deep commitment to social justice as well as restorative practices that have allowed them to be “in it” over the long haul.

Those self-care practices are varied. For me, it meant stepping down as our organization’s executive director nearly six years ago. After 14 years of formal leadership, I needed a change. In an unusual and appreciated move, our new executive director invited me to stay on as “strategic advisor.” In that role, I’ve enjoyed working closely with philanthropic partners without the 24/7 responsibilities of nonprofit leadership. It also gave me more space for reflection, especially during these unprecedented times, on how we have but one precious life to live.

For me to stay “in it,” to learn even more about myself and to find new ways to contribute to the healing our country so desperately needs, I’ve decided to branch out and work as an independent consultant. I’m proud of the legacy I, and we as a team, are leaving with our work. Healthy Places by Design is continuing to evolve under strong leadership and is even more deeply centered in equity.

That’s why, before my departure, it seemed fitting to conclude this series of interviews with Healthy Places by Design’s Executive Director (and my long-time friend, colleague and inspirer) Risa Wilkerson. Read on to hear some of her thoughts on leadership and the work ahead, and a few fun facts about her current life as a digital nomad.

SS: You’ve served as Healthy Places by Design’s executive director for nearly six years now, but your commitment to places and people is decades-long. I bet our readers would love to know more about your career.

RW: It’s a bit serendipitous. I started out thinking I’d be a journalist or a magazine editor. I love learning about the world, hearing people’s stories, and connecting ideas. But along the way I became involved with a local nonprofit in Michigan that was promoting community-level health. I saw how the things I care most about—building relationships, promoting health, experiencing nature—were interconnected in this work. I was sold. I eventually became executive director of that local nonprofit, and later worked at the state level to promote active, healthy communities. That’s where I met you and our team, through a grant program that Healthy Places by Design (then Active Living by Design) was managing as its national program office, and became sold on the type of supports we offer local leaders. Eventually, I joined Healthy Places by Design and have loved partnering with so many different people and in many varied places along the way.

And you’re still learning, listening, and connecting!
Your work with our organization spans nearly two decades. During that time you’ve worn many hats, ranging from on-the-ground leadership as the director of a multi-sector community coalition to serving in national leadership roles and being on the front-end of emergent work like social isolation and well-being. What are a few of the leadership lessons you’ve learned from these roles?

Too often, the word “leader” brings to mind the image of a driving, charismatic decision-maker or visionary. As our team has learned working with nearly 200 local partnerships over the years, this type of model doesn’t create enough space for others to also contribute their wisdom and creativity. And no matter how wonderful any one person is, the collective power of a diverse group of people bringing their experiences, ideas, and passions together is always profoundly stronger. Whatever you call it—distributed leadership, facilitative leadership, adaptive, compassionate or servant leadership—it’s critical to remember that no one is the center of the work or the sole driver of change. I’ve experienced tremendous liberation from that. I don’t have to bring the best ideas or know what the “right” answer is…my job is to help create space for our team, our partners, and the local leaders we support to bring their full selves to the work we’re in together. That also allows me to bring the best of myself without having to be something I’m not.

Here are a few other lessons…

  • Encourage people (and allow yourself) to try new things, follow their interests, and bring their unique style to the work.
  • If it feels like you’re swimming upstream, look for a different current. There is often a way to move “with the flow.”
  • Don’t take it personally. Too often a remark feels personal. Most of the time it isn’t. When we stop bristling, we can find a compassionate leadership lens that keeps us better connected.

"I don’t have to bring the best ideas or know what the “right” answer is…my job is to help create space for our team, our partners, and the local leaders we support to bring their full selves to the work we’re in together."


Those lessons resonate for me, too, Risa. And I think most of us could use more liberation and compassion in our lives.
Healthy Places by Design will be marking its twentieth anniversary in December. As you think about the future, what excites you the most?

When we first started, the field was both expanding and limiting. Meaning, we were finally recognizing that the design of our neighborhoods makes a big difference in whether or not we have health-enhancing options. However, we were focused primarily on nutrition and physical activity, and the field wasn’t yet recognizing the impact of all the ‘ism’s. Now, we are recognizing how every sector and aspect of life impact our health. And the conversation around racial justice and equity has expanded rapidly and seems to be sticking better. It feels more real, and more meaningful.

There’s so much work to be done, of course, but more people and organizations are finally willing to admit that we’ve created unjust systems, and we need to reckon with our history of oppression and colonization. It’s messy, and we certainly don’t have all the answers, but working in partnership with many other groups and communities on these issues is energizing.

You’re right. It’s messy AND energizing. And it’s been exciting to show up as an ally in this work in some new and hopefully “stickier” ways.
Many readers may not know that Healthy Places by Design became a virtual organization a couple of years before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Fewer know that you and your husband have spent much of that time experimenting with life as digital nomads. You spent a winter living on a sailboat, you converted a delivery van into a camper, and you now work from different locations out of a toy hauler. What can all of us learn about work/life balance from your time on the road?

Mindset matters. Previously, traveling meant vacation—and limited time to see what we came to see. We needed to bring a different mindset and adjust our pace, our set up, and our purpose of traveling. It isn’t about passing through so much as experiencing the surroundings, meeting people who live there, finding out what makes a place more unique. Not thinking of it as “vacation” but rather “experiences” shifts it from “what can we see here,” to “what can we learn here.” That also reduced the stress of constant movement.

Related, don’t rush! We started out trying to see lots of places and were always looking for the next place we would visit. However, working full-time on the road limits time to explore to mostly weekends. The point of our new lifestyle was not to have a windshield tour of places, but to get a feel for who and what makes each place special. You have to slow down for that. This is also true in life, isn’t it? You just have to bring more presence of mind, and allow more time to build relationships, get to know yourself, and make adjustments along the way.

Finally, there is no “ideal” or “perfect,” but there is “perfect for now.” Change is hard, and sometimes I put pressure on myself to make the best decisions for the long term. I guess we’ve all had to recognize what was always true…we can’t predict the future, right? But we can take in the information we know at the moment and think of life as an adventure and get on with something.

Here’s to the adventure, Risa, Healthy Places by Design colleagues, partners and friends. I look forward to staying in touch and continuing to work toward health, equity and well-being for everyone. After August 27, you can reach me at

Photo by "My Life Through a Lens" on Unsplash

Sarah Strunk

Strategic Advisor

Healthy communities networker, integrator and distance runner on the go.