At 11 years old Baker Harrell decided to make a big change in his life.
Every day during the summer he’d walk, and eventually jog, a two-mile loop, gaining speed as the summer progressed. He added in body weight exercises and his neighbors took notice, asking him to create a program for them. At home his mother experimented with recipes for a healthier family diet, and Harrell began his transformation from overweight, picked on kid to confident, capable adolescent.
“As an 11 year old you don’t understand what that kind of experience could mean for your life, but it was a profound moment,” Harrell says. Watching his family and neighbors support his healthy efforts and get inspired to change some of their own habits empowered Harrell in a way he hadn’t experienced before. “I grew up in a small town in Mississippi where you don’t get exposed to much, you don’t see yourself as accomplishing much, you have a pretty limited worldview of both the world around you and what you can do in that world,” Harrell says. “That shattered all of those preconceived notions about who I was and what I could become, and set me on this completely different path.”
That path would lead to studying public health and social change. While earning his Masters and PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, Harrell began working on what would ultimately become It’s Time Texas, a nonprofit focused on positively impacting community health. With a mission to broaden the scope of the work being done in the obesity prevention space Harrell sought to create an organization that could focus on more systemic change at a state-wide level.
“When you’re talking about social change, it’s not simple and it’s not short-term,” Harrell says. Taking some cues from LiveStrong’s campaign creation, Harrell and his team developed partnerships with HEB, BlueCross BlueShield, and Texas Health and Human Services to build buy-in for their vision for a healthier Texas community.
Officially launched in November 2014, after some four years in development, It’s Time Texas offers an array of tools and programs to impact each area of a person’s life – from school or work to their home and social lives. Looking to technology to expand their reach, It’s Time Texas developed the Choose Healthier and Teach Healthier apps, as well as the Growing Healthy Schools platform, which allows individuals to donate to healthy school projects or start their own project, like building a climbing structure or running path for a playground. With the United Way of Greater Austin and the UT School of Public Health, It’s Time Texas also created a coaching hotline that people can call for nutrition and fitness information.
The goal for Harrell is more than making a difference over a matter of weeks, but positively altering people’s lifestyles for the long haul. “When you’re talking about systems change,” Harrell says, “we’re having to innovate as much in how we define and measure success as we are in the work itself.”
Ultimately Harrell wants to see people consuming healthier products, living active lifestyles, and being supported by healthier public policies.
Now, more than 20 years after the summer that changed him, and beginning to start his own family (he and his wife Lisa, are expecting a baby in January), Harrell is still inspired by the support he received from his community as a kid, and driven to pay it forward with It’s Time Texas.
“Now I’m accountable to this organization; I’m accountable to all the people that we influence on a daily basis and that drives me,” Harrell says, “Not to be a fitness model, but to prioritize health and to be an example for what living a healthy lifestyle actually looks like.”