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Designing Healthy Communities


This week the Inside Track continues a series of interviews with members of the Strategic Advisory Committee of Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association, exploring their various contributions to the fight against childhood obesity.

For more than a decade, Sarah Strunk and her colleagues at Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based Active Living By Design have been helping community partnerships and philanthropic organizations create healthier environments.

But before that, a variety of experiences in the health care industry gave her a very useful view “of how the health care system works and the ways in which it doesn’t work.”

Sarah, a Leader, noted that many of her colleagues at Active Living By Design have backgrounds in urban planning, public health and other social sciences. By contrast, she completed graduate studies in health policy and administration before working in business and strategic planning at academic medical centers, then moved to Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina.

She began volunteering at the University of North Carolina’s public health school, then took a job there as director of external relations. “I had never done fundraising, alumni work, or work with foundations and corporations; all of that was very new to me,” she said, but she found that she both liked it and was good at it. She enjoyed connecting faculty members and administrators with donors who could support the school’s mission to advance research, education and practice.

From there, her next step was a move to Active Living By Design, which was launched in 2002 as a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Since the turn of the century, RWJF has been taking a more serious look at how the built environment can encourage or discourage physical activity. Sarah worked with the program’s first director to set up the organization, and then took on the job of deputy director. She found appeal in “the idea of building a new initiative from scratch—an opportunity to influence population health in a much more profound way than could be done through the health care system alone.”

It was also another opportunity to learn: “I didn’t know much about zoning, transportation, land use and so on, so it was also a chance to dive into a new content area,” Sarah said. After three years as deputy director, she took over as director in 2005 and is now serving as the group’s executive director.

Since its founding, Active Living By Design has worked with nearly 200 community partnerships and dozens of grantmakers around the country, providing technical assistance and consultation, managing learning collaboratives, facilitating dialogue and sharing promising practices. Over time, the organization’s focus has expanded from physical activity to access to healthy food, childhood obesity prevention and social determinants of health. The organization has also led other national initiatives such as Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities; helped nonprofits with strategic planning and coalition development; and worked with funders to design and implement new grantmaking programs.

Active Living By Design left its longtime home at UNC-Chapel Hill last year, and forged an affiliation with Third Sector New England, a group which works to strengthen the capacity of the nonprofit sector.

Sarah stressed that for her and her team, “this work is not just a job, it’s both a personal and professional passion. We really walk the talk.”

Staff members serve in leadership roles in their own community organizations – such as on parks and planning advisory boards – and on nonprofit boards of directors.

“Volunteer work serves as a bit of a learning lab,” she said. “It helps us be better in our day jobs and helps us better understand some of the challenges our partners and clients face every day.”