Over the next few months we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers scheduled to be at our May 15-16 symposium, Community Agency & Health. We start the ball rolling with Risa Wilkerson of Active Living By Design who’ll be co-leading a breakout session on day two titled, ‘Creating Leadership Capacity for Long Term Change’.
Risa’s co-leaders are two long-time local leaders who know well how to build leadership capacity and community agency: Genoveva Islas, the Program Director of Cultiva La Salud in Central Valley, CA and Dina Newman, the Director for the University of Missouri—Kansas City’s Center for Neighborhoods.
Pritpal S Tamber: Hi Risa. Happy new year. Let’s start with what Active Living By Design is and its history.
Risa Wilkerson: Hi Pritpal. Happy new year to you too. Active Living By Design is a nonprofit that works with communities to improve their health and well-being. We believe in the power people have to reshape the places where they live, and the policies, systems, and environments that define their choices. That’s why, since 2002, we’ve partnered with dozens of health philanthropies which invest in local change agents leading collaborative transformation in their communities.
PST: Give me an example of a local change agent.
RW: They’re typically people living and working in the communities they seek to transform by collaborating with many other stakeholders. An effective, collaborative process requires that they have a facilitative leadership style and engage diverse, cross-sector representatives. Furthermore, when local change agents prioritize authentic community engagement and ensure there are processes in place to support it, resident leaders are more likely to fully participate in decision making and own the work. This helps strengthen outcomes and increase the probability of long-term success.
PST: It sounds to me as though community agency is an important part of what you do.
RW: It is the very core of what we do! Our work is based on the observation that achieving health equity is impossible without examining power structures and equitably distributing decision-making power. We support community-led change by placing communities’ assets and agency at the center. This requires authentic community engagement, which recognizes people’s lived experiences in neighborhoods where past policies and investment decisions have often made the healthy choice the impossible choice.
PST: Does your approach work?
RW: Yes. As trusted strategic partners, we have worked with nearly 200 community partnerships in 35 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico to lift local leaders, advance action on the ground, and inspire collaboration for long-term change. Lifting up community members’ voices and power increases the impact of community changes as residents come to value, own and act on what they have been so invested in. The result is a healthier community and a more connected, empowered culture.
PST: Explain the link to health equity.
RW: A health equity focus is an intentional effort, through just and fair inclusion, to eliminate avoidable and unjust social, economic, and environmental conditions that create health disparities. We must recognize that those with lived experience in these unjust conditions best understand what is needed to change them, and by fully engaging them in the process, we increase their ability to hold policymakers accountable for sustainable and effective change.
PST: You mentioned that local change agents need a ‘facilitative leadership style’; how is that different than plain old leadership?
RW: We love this question! Facilitative leaders share power and influence among engaged partners and seek out space for emerging leaders. This style can help people build deeper levels of capacity. It can also produce actions and outcomes that are generated by, and best serve, a group rather than one or two vocal leaders.
PST: Yeah, I’ve had ample experience of ‘vocal leaders’ who have served themselves rather than the group. Say more about how facilitative leaders work.
RW: A facilitative leader creates opportunities for others to offer their perspectives and talents, to feel comfortable speaking up when they have problems or solutions, and to consider all perspectives when making decisions. It creates the conditions for communities to effectively and creatively address shared goals and leverage opportunities for greater impact.
PST: You mentioned building deeper levels of capacity but what does ‘capacity’ actually mean?
Understanding community capacity
RW: Capacity refers to the collective ability of people and organizations to define, pursue, and achieve their goals. Working for sustainable, healthy community change is a complex endeavor. Communities with capacity have knowledge, skills, cohesion, commitment, structures, networks, and access to resources. All of that is required to support effective decision making and action over time. Communities with the greatest health disparities may have less capacity, yet every community has some capacity. It is important to recognize existing assets and build from there.
PST: In your breakout session, you’ll be sharing six lessons that you’ve learned from the almost 200 partnerships you’ve helped over the last 14 years; give us three here.
RW: One, how to identify and cultivate facilitative leadership. It doesn’t always come naturally, so it’s important to be intentional. Two, how to create structures and supports with the end in mind. Successful partnerships let their priorities determine their structure, not the other way around. And three, the need to share the money and opportunity. Lead agencies sometimes have blind spots when investing in the capacity of others. We’ll talk about what some of those are and how to ensure that resource decisions support equity and long-term change.
PST: Thanks, Risa, both for this interview and for being part of the symposium. See you in May.
RW: I’m looking forward to learning with everyone then.
Many people talk about community-led change but few have the experience to describe what it means and share how to make it happen. We’re delighted that Risa and her colleagues have agreed to share their ‘lessons’ with us through a breakout session. To learn more about the symposium, see our webpage or contact us. To register, see our Eventbrite page.