Birmingham Ladder to Leadership Fellow Helps Plant a Garden to Build Community

    • April 10, 2013

The challenge. At the nonprofit Jones Valley Urban Farm in Birmingham, Ala., Rachel Reinhart created programs for children and adults ranging from testing soil to creating healthy lunches for school-aged kids. But Reinhart wanted to do more, particularly in the area of advocacy. How could she connect to others who were doing both and learn from them?

Linking the environment and health education. Rachel Reinhart's life has consistently reflected a sense of place and purpose.

Except for two brief forays in Bristol, U.K., and Seattle, Wash., she grew up and has always lived in Birmingham. And excluding her four years as a nanny, Reinhart has always worked in jobs related to the environment, gardening, and health education. "I've been gardening since I could grasp a pea between thumb and finger," she likes to say.

Her career path in nonprofits and community health was sparked during her high school years, when Reinhart worked for a local environmental nonprofit. She decided to study health education at the University of Alabama, graduating with a degree in philosophy and health education in 1994.

Reinhart then worked her way through the Birmingham environmental world, as a naturalist at a nature center, education director at a local river society, program director for a parks and recreation department, and executive director of the Alabama Environmental Council. In 2006, she became program director of a new venture called the Jones Valley Urban Farm, with a mission to make the community a healthier place and teach 10,000 schoolchildren a year about healthy food.

At Jones Valley, Reinhart managed 11 programs for children and adults that combined classroom education with hands-on farming. The programs covered "everything from how to test soil to how to create healthy lunches for kids," said Reinhart. The organization soon became known nationwide in the burgeoning urban farm and healthy eating movement.

Connecting growing food to advocacy. In 2008, Reinhart began to dabble in advocacy work related to the farm's mission. At the same time, she heard about Ladder to Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Community Health Leaders, a leadership training opportunity created for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation by the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C.

At first, Reinhart thought the program was better-suited to the farm's executive director, a position she never aspired to. But the more she considered it, the more the program sounded like a good fit for her.

"Ladder to Leadership seemed to provide an excellent opportunity to train me as our organization gained national prominence," Reinhart observed. "We had gained some ground for our good work in the policy field, but we felt it would be good to have me as a specialist, dealing in higher-level policy work. And it looked like Ladder to Leadership would give that to me."

Ladder to Leadership. From 2008 to 2012, Ladder to Leadership sought to develop a cadre of leaders to enhance the capacity of nonprofit health organizations that serve vulnerable populations, and to cope with an exodus of senior leaders as the baby boom generation retires. The program trained early-to-mid-career professionals to nurture organizational change and work across organizational barriers, develop more constituent-focused services, and adapt innovations from other fields.

The 16-month program included training sessions at the Center for Creative Leadership, one-on-one coaching and mentoring, and a team action project focusing on fellows' own communities. Over five years, Ladder to Leadership trained 219 health care professionals in eight cities and regions: Albuquerque, N.M.; Birmingham, Ala.; central New York state; Cleveland, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo.; Newark, N.J.; eastern North Carolina; and Portland, Ore.

From 2010 to 2011, Reinhart was one of 21 fellows in the Birmingham cohort, representing an area with 8 percent unemployment and a 27 percent poverty rate at the time.

A garden grows at Cooper Green Mercy Hospital. Ladder to Leadership staff asked each regional cohort to identify the most pressing challenges to advancing public health. "The one that most resonated with me was the lack of community engagement," said Reinhart.

To respond, Reinhart's team helped create a community garden at Cooper Green Mercy Hospital in Birmingham. The county-funded charity hospital "is a hot-button issue—people are constantly talking about shutting it down," she noted, especially when the municipality declared bankruptcy. "However, we all felt strongly that the hospital provides critical services to the most underserved members of our community."

Yet "our vision was not to go and put a garden in," she noted. Instead, the cohort envisioned the garden project as giving "patients, volunteers, doctors, administrators, janitors—you name it"—a chance to build engagement, trust, and teamwork. "We invited everyone," she said.

Some people "would not miss a meeting to plan the garden, and would take two different bus transfers because it was important," Reinhart recounted. "Doctors, nurses, administrators and off-the-street community people were talking on a peer-to-peer basis." In developing the garden, "We also wanted Cooper Green to be seen as a place for health, not just for being super sick."

Participants decided to build the garden on the driveway median at the hospital entrance, so "virtually everyone who goes in the door" would see it and "talk with people working there," Reinhart said. The project not only provided healthier food but also "created a model of what a healthier lifestyle could look like, and of what can happen when a community works toward a goal."

Letting go to foster teamwork. With her extensive background in gardening, Reinhart had to fight her own instincts—and the urging of others—to do most of the work. "My co-leader wanted me to put in the garden, and I said, 'No. I'm not putting the garden in. If we build it, they won't come.' I didn't want it to be seen as Rachel's Garden at Cooper Green—it was Jamal's and the chronic pain clinic's and the AIDS clinic's and the patient volunteers' garden. That's their garden."

Stepping back wasn't easy, Reinhart admitted—a challenge she had to work through during the leadership training program. "It was difficult for me. I was successful in getting projects done, but not in developing teamwork that builds the skills of team members. I did not realize that until then."

Embracing change. As part of her Ladder to Leadership training, Reinhart also experienced "professional derailment"—an unexpected and sometimes sudden change in one's career. Ironically, in May 2012, eight months after finishing the leadership program, Reinhart came face-to-face with the concept when Jones Valley hired a new executive director, and "I found myself derailing, because of lots of factors," she said.

Reinhart left the organization she had worked for since its founding in 2006, and in August 2012 became a teacher and grant writer for the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. "Without the Ladder to Leadership experience to put that into perspective, I would have found it much harder to pick up and move on," she noted. "It helped that we identified individual strengths and weaknesses in an informed way, because to lose that job was a huge blow to my identity.

"But the more I went back to my Ladder to Leadership literature and talked to my peers, the better I felt about being done with that phase of the organization, and saw it not as a failure but an opportunity. And to have that be a learning experience instead of a devastating experience—that was huge."

"I still very much consider myself a community health advocate," said Reinhart, who teaches food and nutrition courses at her new school. "My primary role here is as an educator, centered around food and health. And because of the leadership program, "I now have connections all over the community that I didn't have before."

Additionally, Reinhart notes that being a Ladder to Leadership fellow "afforded me greater standing as a healthy food advocate. I was nominated for and won a spot as the southeastern delegate to the Slow Food International Congress in Turin, Italy, in October 2012. I got to speak before food policy and practice advocates from all over the world, and had the amazing opportunity to inform international food policy development based on the skills and programs that Ladder to Leadership helped me to develop."

RWJF perspective. RWJF has nurtured leaders in health and health care since its inception. "The Foundation's Human Capital Portfolio aims to ensure that we have a diverse and adequately trained health and health care workforce," said Program Officer Sallie Anne George, MPH. "The Foundation has a 40-year history of supporting the development of 'human capital.' However, we saw a gap concerning the leadership capacity of community nonprofits. We designed Ladder to Leadership to close that gap."

"We recognized that many nonprofit leaders are so focused on providing services to the most vulnerable that they are not looking to see where they fit into the larger system, and where it makes sense to collaborate," George noted. "We hoped that Ladder to Leadership fellows would gain confidence in their ability to lead regardless of their formal position, to think more strategically, and to collaborate effectively.

"There is evidence that we are strengthening collaboration in communities, and hopefully leading them to be healthier places to live, learn, work, and play."

"I was successful in getting projects done—but not in developing team work that built the skills of team members.”—Rachel Reinhart

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#LadderToLeadership trained 21 people from Alabama as community health leaders, including Rachel Reinhart

"To have [a job transition] be a learning experience instead of a devastating experience—that was huge.”—Rachel Reinhart