This year we are excited to work with Active Living By Design (ALBD) and its executive director, Sarah Strunk. ALBD recently transitioned out of its university home, where it incubated and grew the program from its inception in 2002.
Right Place at the Right Time
Strunk says that many important turning points in her life and career have been a result of being in the right place at the right time.
For more than 10 years, Strunk and the ALBD staff have built the program into a leading national voice for healthy eating and active living policy and environmental change, facilitating community-led change by working with local, state and national partners united in their goal. ALBD has consulted and collaborated with more than 160 local coalitions in 30 states, dozens of national collaborators and a variety of philanthropic organizations.
But working with ALBD wasn’t the first time Strunk realized the impact of place on one’s health. As a teenager, she spent time on the South Side of Chicago, where she experienced the challenges and stresses of living in a low-income urban environment versus the healthier environment she had enjoyed in the suburbs. “This was the first time I was exposed to such huge disparities in health, education, income and opportunity,” she says. “People who lived only a few blocks from the University of Chicago had vastly different experiences in their quality of life. It was a visceral example of the social injustice of poverty.”
Through her early experiences, Strunk knew she wanted her life and her career to have a positive impact. After working in medicine and managed care, Strunk was looking for something more. “I felt like I was missing ‘mission’ in my life. I wanted to feel like I was making a difference,” she says.
At the time, Strunk was working at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, fundraising for the School of Public Health, when the opportunity came to combine her career with her aspirations to find meaning in cause-based work. She became involved with ALBD after meeting representatives from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who were looking for a home for a new national program to pilot the development of healthy, active community environments. The five-year initiative would build community demonstration projects focused on increasing physical activity through changes in policy and the built environment. Strunk was at the meeting only by chance, substituting for a colleague who couldn’t make it. After a few weeks of collaboration, RWJF staff saw her potential to make an impact on the program and recruited her as its deputy director.
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” Strunk says. “But it made all the difference in my life and in my career.”
A Leap of Faith for the Program
The program was designed to be a significant departure from the more traditional focus on education and awareness as primary influencers of behavior change. It was set up to engage multidisciplinary partners and offer technical assistance and consultation from an experienced group of project staff and a peer-learning network. The execution of that vision was a bit more complex. But since 2002, Strunk and her dedicated
team worked to activate communities around ALBD’s cause—and have met with great success.
“We all took a leap of faith,” she says. “When we started this with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation more than 10 years ago, there was no playbook; we were helping to start a movement from scratch. It’s been extremely rewarding to see this movement grow.” And ALBD has indeed grown along with the movement, working with a variety of funders and hundreds of communities across the country since that initial grant program.
Now, as ALBD moves into the next phase of its work, the organization is applying the lessons learned from building community demonstrations and testing models of active healthy communities to the next level. In the coming years, ALBD will leverage the relationships it has built with funders, communities and other mission partners to broaden its reach.
A New Partnership to Help Grow and Thrive
As ALBD has grown and its service model has evolved, Strunk sought out a partner to help support the spin-off of the program from its academic home. “We needed an organization that would provide us with the flexibility and expertise we need as we grow and change over the next decade,” she explains. “Third Sector New England was well positioned to help us transition from the university and support our ongoing activities.” As a fiscally sponsored project of Third Sector New England, Active Living By Design is in a place to grow and thrive.
“What’s different now is that the next generation of leaders intrinsically understands and values the relationship between place and health,” Strunk says. “Working in partnership with advocates, policymakers
and grantmakers, I’m very excited about what the next decade of Active Living By Design will hold.”