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Wholeheartedly Devoted to Change


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.Connect with this week’s Leader, Makani Themba, through her Leader profile.

Makani Themba, a longtime grassroots organizer and executive director of the nonprofit Praxis Project, doesn’t necessarily see her organization’s work as advancing individual issues.

Rather, Praxis takes a holistic approach to empowering the communities with which it works, focusing on “the idea of law as a tool that people can use—you don’t have to be a lawyer,” she says. The idea is to move “beyond making demands to making commitments … this is what democracy looks like.”

To her, a healthy environment is a crucial part of that holistic approach: “We need fresh air, good food, healthy housing, green space, income, jobs.”

She first became interested in food access issues earlier in her career, when working as media director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Los Angeles, California. Communities had “too many liquor stores and not enough grocery stores,” she said, and availability of fruits and vegetables was lacking, leading local activists to wonder: “We eat them, so why won’t people sell them to us?”

Themba says founding Praxis was “the next logical step in a journey of working with communities around the country,” at a variety of organizations focused on using media to further policy advocacy.

Before that, she was director of the Transnational Racial Justice Initiative and the Grass Roots Innovative Policy Program, two organizations that sought to build advocates’ capacity to fight structural racism and its effect on schools and other social institutions.

Themba says she is proud to be a member of the Voices for Healthy Kids Strategic Advisory Council and bring Praxis’s comprehensive approach to the table: “It’s a bold vision to build this movement,” she said. “We need to expand the advocacy infrastructure and engage people to be leaders.”

In that vein, Themba is working on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Communities Creating Healthy Environments initiative, which seeks to make schools healthier places, including by improving food offerings and access to physical education and making playgrounds safer. She noted that for urban communities of color, that can mean not only safer play equipment but also protecting children from violence in their neighborhoods.

“All of these things are connected,” she said. “Kids spend so much of their time in school, it is a great place to make change happen.”