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AHA improves the health and well-being of Wake County residents by facilitating and supporting community initiatives.

Perspectives (August 2014): Librarians at the Active Living Table

Sara Merz, Director

Sara Merz, Director

I’ve been thinking lately of spheres of influence and how we often look “out there” to others (institutions or government bodies) when trying to solve a problem. Some answers, however, are within.

When my former boss and I started an active living initiative in Minnesota’s capital county, we led a process with leaders and staff from multiple organizations and departments in conversations about how to improve health through policy and the built environment. Elected leaders, management and staff from across County, municipal and statewide departments were at the table.

Early on we were looking outward, and one key reason for including the municipalities was because those of us representing the County felt the city streets were a better fit for more biking and walking. It took us at least a year to realize that our county roads – the ones we first thought we couldn’t do anything differently with – were a critical area to address because they were so key for connectivity. They often were a main thoroughfare for bicyclists who wanted to commute, and they also often had fast traffic and bottlenecks at bridges, making them varying degrees of safe, dangerous, or impassable.

It took a group process, departmental expertise, and also county leadership and a group of biking enthusiasts from the community working together for over a year to get to the point where there was consensus on the importance of doing a specific thing differently (and what that new normal would be).

We had more ability for impact, within our own organization’s policy and practices, than we initially realized. And it was great to have the cities involved; they had significant outcomes and made it a much more powerful initiative. That was no less important. My point is this was a lesson for me that organizations don’t always see opportunities the first time they look – me included.

Others at the table of our initiative amazed me. Our County library system, for example, came up with the idea of letting kids walk their bikes into the libraries and then “check out” a bike lock with their library card, just like a book. That idea came out of the library staff being part of our initiative. They were at the table to learn about and discuss physical activity and the environment, and how walking and biking to destinations (“active transportation”) could be a key part of improving physical activity and health outcomes.

This goal, combined with their goal to provide accesses to the libraries, led them to observe what was happening on their sites:   kids without bike locks were riding to the library, leaving their bikes outside, and then having the bikes stolen. The librarians brought a creative idea to solve the problem.  If they hadn’t come to the table to learn and then gone back to their staff for discussion, those of us who were within the county organization but removed from the day to day library operations would not have identified this need or opportunity.

It takes cross-departmental collaboration to truly embed change in any organization, including counties and municipalities, because those departments all have specialized knowledge in the specific work they do. The process I experienced in Ramsey County showed us repeatedly that we did, in fact, in our little sphere, and in overlapping spheres, have the ability to change how we did our work.

So I share this story not because I’m suggesting that AHA and its partners examine the roads or libraries in Wake County, per se, but because of the lessons learned about collaboration. Our tendency is to think that we’re doing all we can, and the solutions are somewhere “out there,” external to where we work, but when we work across departments/organizations/staff hierarchy, we come up with significant, functional change.


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