For Dr. Liz Ackley, data is more than a collection of numbers and statistics; it is "a catalyst for action."
In 2011, Ackley developed the Roanoke Valley Community Healthy Living Index (RV-CHLI), a health surveillance system to study city of Roanoke residents' perceptions of access to healthy living resources and youth health outcomes. The project resulted in numerous infrastructure improvement projects, social service initiatives, police patrolling efforts, and large-scale policy initiatives to address health inequities within the city, she says.
Thanks to Ackley's work with the RV-CHLI, the city of Roanoke has been chosen as one of eight communities across the United States to participate in "Building Healthy, Equitable Communities for Children & Families," a national initiative of the Oakland, California-based ChangeLab Solutions. The project aims to "create health-promoting environments, systems, and social and economic conditions for all families."
"Health is the most robust indicator of a city's soundness," says Ackley, the Brian H. Thornhill Associate Professor of Health and Human Performance at Roanoke College. "We're trying to look at health more broadly, examining all of the...factors that influence health such as transportation, safety, schools, literacy and housing. If we can think about the city as a whole, we can use policy to influence decision-making from a broader perspective. This can have wide-scale, lasting effects."
Experts at ChangeLab will support each cohort city's efforts to change laws, policies, systems and institutions that have the potential to improve the health of children and their families, and their communities. The nonprofit organization will collaborate with the Roanoke team to provide technical assistance to support the inclusion of health and equity as priority areas in the city's 2040 comprehensive plan.
"It's a new angle to think about health as a tool for citywide planning," says Ackley, adding that data gathered through the RV-CHLI provides background information for the ChangeLab Solutions initiative. "We have been supporting the city's planning team in writing health elements into our comprehensive master plan for the first time in history."
Roanoke College is the anchor institution for the project, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Freedom First Credit Union is co-leading the project, which also involves Roanoke city planning officials.
The Roanoke team is exploring numerous issues, including housing, parks, financial stability, and bicyclist and pedestrian safety. Using input from local citizens, the team can think creatively about policies to promote equality and healthy living. For example, could the city offer incentives to encourage the development of grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods, giving residents better access to healthy foods, or mixed zoning in certain neighborhoods that would boost entrepreneurial pursuits, leading to greater employment opportunities and economic development?
Ackley continues to serve as director of the RV-CHLI, which has collected information about health and perceptions of access to healthy living from more than 7,300 elementary students in Roanoke City Public Schools. Roanoke College students, under Ackley's direction, have been collecting the data, analyzing it and generating reports for community partners. They have nearly completed reports for 2018, which are focused on nutrition-related beliefs and behaviors, and soon will begin collecting data for the 2019 assessment.
Hannah Kolcz, '18, says working on the RV-CHLI project during her senior year helped prepare her for graduate school at the University of South Carolina, where she is enrolled in the Advanced Athletic Training Program. She valued Ackley's mentorship and the opportunity to create and design research questions from the massive dataset. She and her research partner focused on the correlation between family perceptions of environments that promote physical activity (such as parks, playgrounds and gyms) and children's BMI.
"I have decided to continue to focus my research on bettering the health of children across America, and I wouldn't have come across this path if it weren't for Dr. Ackley and the Roanoke Valley Community Healthy Living Index," Kolcz says. "I gained confidence, connections, direction, and overall, a wonderful research coordinator. I know I can always call on Dr. Ackley to remind me that it only takes one person to make such a huge difference."
Ackley believes that involving students in these types of real-world projects positions students as local community leaders and aligns with Roanoke College's mission of preparing students for service to the world.
"Service and research are not mutually exclusive," Ackley says. "If we are really trying to educate students as whole persons, there should be some ethos to the work we're doing in the communities, and those communities need to benefit in some way."
"Students are finding their academic identities, they are engaging in experiential learning opportunities, and they are building skills to help them make data driven decisions. This work is emboldening our focus on lifting our students to live on purpose."
Find out more about Roanoke's health and exercise science program here.