Once he learned about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, Mark Dessauer realized that, for some kids, life was like entering a Tough Mudder endurance run every single day.
In those events, competitors face adrenaline-churning situations; they clamber up slippery slopes, dodge electrical wires or wriggle under barbed fencing. “It hit me: those are the conditions of kids who are suffering from ACEs,” Dessauer says. “That’s their race every day.”
Dessauer is vice president of Spitfire Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that specializes in communication, strategic planning, and guiding non-profit agencies to create social change.
Before that, he was director of communications for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation; he also served as communication director for Active Living by Design, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program to create healthier communities.
It was during that project, a national campaign to reduce childhood obesity, that his team came up against the social determinants of health. Dessauer was working with 75 economically distressed communities, including Louisville, Kentucky.
While trying to encourage more physical activity, Dessauer recalls, “I said, ‘You guys have a great street network; why can’t you go out and walk and bike in the streets?’” Community members answered frankly: “It’s not safe.”
That’s when he realized that childhood obesity was rooted in economics, in safety, in systemic racism. “Obesity is a signal, way downstream, of kids who are facing very difficult lives.”
Dessauer walks his talk—literally. He co-founded the Bull City Open Streets, North Carolina’s first open streets event, leads Durham community groups in finding more opportunities for biking and walking, and helped develop the Durham Public Schools Hub Farm, a 30-acre farm and wilderness area.
Dessauer hopes to bring his experience with storytelling, messaging, and community engagement to help MARC sites share knowledge and experience both within and among their networks.
“What are the dynamics of how the collaborative works on the ground?” Dessauer says. “I’m interested in learning more about that and seeing how I can help folks strengthen…I love community work. When you understand ACEs, it opens so many more doors of empathy, care, and understanding. This is a really transformational movement.”