By Taylor Sisk
One of Victoria Chetty’s hobbies is genealogical research. She’s drawn to the potential for indefinite discovery.
“When you reach this cousin that you found that you never knew about, you really reach the whole family,” Chetty said. “When new connections are forged, it has this multiplying effect.”
She believes this type of effect is at work today in Halifax County, her home, located in the northeastern corner of the state, a region with many of the state’s lowest-income counties.
Chetty sees these connections being made throughout Halifax as initiatives are launched and efforts are joined in a campaign to improve the health and well-being of the residents of a county ranked next to the bottom of North Carolina’s health outcomes.
The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust is helping Halifax make those connections. Through the trust’s Healthy Places NC program, the community received $1.2 million in grant money to fund a school-based program that promotes healthy habits and a community-based project to advance education about healthy living and nutrition and fund recreational facilities.
Chetty is no idle observer to what’s happening here. She returned home after four years away at college to pitch in, serving today as a community transformation catalyst coordinator with the North Carolina Public Health Foundation. Her job is to help build an infrastructure that will sustain these newly launched initiatives for the long haul.
She considers her role to be the glue that ensures things don’t fall through the cracks. She works to maintain momentum and encourage community input in all phases of the process.
At 25, Chetty has embraced this opportunity to help make things happen here at home. There’s an “intensity” to this experience, she said, “an understanding that in the time that I am here I have to do things that really matter. And I have to really force myself to get uncomfortable in doing things that can make a difference down the road and can be sustainable.”
Chetty said she likes being at least a little uncomfortable; it drives her. And she’s confident the destination is a worthy one.
“There’s very good reason to feel positive about the future of Halifax,” she said.
The power to re-create
Chetty was born and grew up in Roanoke Rapids, Halifax’s county seat. Her father, Wilbert Louis, an internist, and mother, Joyce, who manages his practice, had moved down with Victoria’s three older siblings from Washington, D.C.
She was a Girl Scout, earning the Gold Award. She attended city schools in Roanoke Rapids, where she ran track and played soccer and played bass clarinet in the band. She was president of Students Against Drunk Driving and was a member of the science club, American Friends Service Committee, National Honor Society and Young Democrats.
Chetty chose to attend Mills College, a school tucked into the middle of urban Oakland, Calif., where she was a biology major.
“I wanted to go someplace that was in very sharp contrast to my hometown,” she said, “I guess probably going back to the fact that I don’t like to be too comfortable and I like to really challenge myself and push myself, I think in a sense to see who I am at all times.”
She’d always intended to return home after graduation, but knew that return wouldn’t be permanent.
“Home is where your story starts,” she said one recent afternoon while driving a stretch of rural Hwy. 301 between the towns of Halifax and Enfield, “and it’s very important to me to very thoroughly understand the role this place plays in my life.
“I have to understand myself through the lens of my home setting. That has a lot of power and meaning for me.”
It involves what Chetty describes as a “clarifying process” of understanding herself.
She started out doing volunteer work, a hodge-podge of community service activities that included working with the arts council and serving as an advocate for children in the foster care system who’ve been abused or neglected.
In February 2014, she took her current position. She’s worked closely with the Roanoke Valley Community Health Initiative on its “Get Fit, Stay Fit Roanoke Valley” campaign and with the schools, the parks & rec department and faith communities. She’s helped bring enhancements to local farmers’ markets.
More than anything though, she said, her job is about fostering a sense of community ownership in all these initiatives.
“That’s an area of community outreach that I really enjoy,” she said, “getting people engaged in these processes that they often don’t feel they have a voice in.”
Turning the corner
Chetty has witnessed the burnout communities experience when outside organizations arrive, well intentioned, with lots of ideas. They introduce a few initiatives and exit.
“It’s easy and it’s very understandable,” she said, that communities can get tired of being someone’s project. Equally, she said with a laugh, communities tire of becoming someone’s case study or dissertation: “‘It’s really bad here. Can I write about ya’ll?’”
While acknowledging good things can come out of such efforts in the short term – and sometimes even beyond – they more often perpetuate an “ongoing process of instability.”
The Healthy Places NC program attracts her in that beyond the funding there’s an emphasis on forming alliances and bolstering the capacity of communities to advance their own initiatives.
“It’s being connected to The Conservation Fund, it’s being connected to Youth Empowered Solutions, it’s being connected to [NC] Child, it’s being connected to the North Carolina Foundation for Advanced Health Programs and to tourism and the stuff that they’re doing and all of these things.”
“If the community can’t sustain the effort,” Chetty said, “then the effort won’t be sustained by external efforts.”
She said she believes that, “A lot of how we work and our effectiveness in our communities has to do with how we frame assets, strengths, weaknesses and needs.
By “framing,” she means how people think about rural communities. “Often, unfortunately, people kind of write [them] off as saying they don’t have much because it’s not an urban area, they don’t have many resources.
But Chetty maintains there’s another way to look at rural communities.
Communities without a lot of material resources, she said, have an opportunity to create “things that are specifically aligned and attuned to ‘this is what works for us.’
She said everyone has had a lot to learn in this process, “and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
The discomfort quotient
Improving avenues of communications is among Chetty’s upcoming objectives. She said the absence of a centralized means of communication – a definitive website, for example – hinders organizers’ efforts to engage the community.
“It can be really difficult to reach out to people and to really get the message across to people,” she said.
She doesn’t have a ready solution; incremental solutions seem more viable. She’s working with a group called Partners in Faith to better disseminate information across congregations.
She’s all the while optimistic: “Healthy Places is meant to be a catalyst for long-term action, and that long-term action is being coordinated by members of the community, and I think that will be directly proportional to the long-term success.”
And she continues monitoring her discomfort quotient, which, she acknowledged, requires regular tweaking: “I don’t want to forget that I’m alive.”
Her community is engaging her – and she, it – as new connections are forged and the multiplier effect gains momentum.
This is where she is, and who knows what comes next.
“I really trust my intuition and I really trust my spirit,” Chetty said. “I typically kind of trust the ebb and flow of the journey, and I don’t try to swim against it or outswim it.”
This story was made possible by a grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation to examine issues in rural health in North Carolina.