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Service, Community, and Partnership

By Niiobli Armah IV on July 13th, 2022



In 2009, as a new program coordinator at the MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Health Disparities Department, I worked with Dr. Lovell Jones and Dr. Beverly Gor to create and manage a community non-profit called CAN DO Houston. During the height of the public health movement to address childhood obesity, CAN DO Houston received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to be part of the Healthy Kids Healthy Communities (HKHC) initiative. Active Living By Design (now Healthy Places By Design) was HKHC’s national program office and their team provided overarching guidance, coaching, cross-project learning opportunities and more to us grantees. That work was worthy of talking about, but this story is not about the grant or the funder. It's about relationships. 

Not only did the structure of the HKHC program create a powerful peer network across the country that I still call on today, it also brought me into a 13-year relationship with the organization and people at Healthy Places By Design. I would have never imagined back then that I would have gone from a grantee to the Chair of their Advisory Board. This month, I turn that leadership position over to Asta Petkeviciute. (Look for a blog introducing her in the near future.) Before I step down, I have the pleasure to pause for a moment and reflect on this wonderful journey and the insights learned along the way. 


Seeing small teams doing big work really excites me 

The Healthy Places By Design team is a small niche of individuals that make a big impact in the world. I have seen their work but also have worked alongside them. In a world where we focus primarily on what the work is, I have come to appreciate teams that embrace a clear why and how. The why for Healthy Places by Design is directly connected to their how. Their why is all about ensuring health and wellbeing for all and their how is through deep strategic partnerships with community. 


Transitioning from the technical to the adaptive

Healthy Places by Design is an adaptive team. Many organizations spend a lot of time on technical issues, trying to solve the specifics of a problem. Healthy Places by Design takes an adaptive approach to place-based work. In my short tenure (ok, maybe not so short), they’ve had typical turnover in the advisory board and staff, and the organization welcomed a new Executive Director from within. Funder dynamics have changed, the field evolved it’s understanding of the social determinants of health and what equity means. We’ve all been weathering the unpredictability of this pandemic. What remained consistent, however, is how the team leaned into their work and asked hard questions even as the world around them evolved and changed. They didn’t always have all the answers and they for sure have learned hard lessons but the short story is, they did the necessary work to adapt to the needs of communities as quickly as communities have had to adapt to the circumstances around them. 


Staying connected to and grounded in community 

If we are honest, we all know organizations who conform to the latest version of status quo. I am proud to say that for over a decade the conversation at Healthy Places By Design has been focused on community and equity, full stop. So much of their work is about getting out of the way so that community members have the best chance and agency to ensure that they have equitable access to opportunities. I have seen them in Houston, East New York, the Mississippi Delta, and in their home state of North Carolina. This is their super power. They know how to work with a community, not just in a community. In a society that follows trends or buzzwords, Healthy Places by Design demonstrates that staying steadfast in serving the community is where long term impact is made.


I could share many more insights and lessons learned but there is not enough time to capture them all. Although I am stepping down as Chair this month and leaving the board at the end of the year, I remain excited about the next chapter with the team and continued opportunities for We-Collab and Healthy Places By Design to do good work together. Healthy Places By Design will always have a special place in my heart. Until next time. 


Photo credit: Chang Duong via Unsplash

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.