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Rising Stars: Meet Lesa Walker

Today we’d like to introduce you to Lesa Walker.

Hi Lesa, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start maybe you can share some of your backstory with our readers?
I was born in Austin, Texas and have lived in Austin most of my life. Thus, I have seen much growth and many changes in our city. I have a variety of interests. One of the hats I wear is as a public health physician. I have worked in public health administration for most of my career, serving as the Medical Director/ Title V Director of the Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs (CYSHCN) Services Program at the Texas Department of State Health Services for almost 25 years. During these years, I worked to develop quality health care service systems to meet the complex needs of CYSHCN. I have had the privilege of learning so much from people with disabilities and their families. My most effective learning takes place by listening and by following the lead of those with lived experience.

In 2010 I switched gears to become a medical consultant in order to give myself time to pursue creative approaches to making the world a better place. To achieve peace, environmental sustainability, and health I believe strongly in the importance and impact of individual action. So I launched a website and a challenge to engage people in positive actions for peace, green-living, and health and piloted the challenge in an after-school program in the Austin Independent School District.

As part of exploring this activation challenge, I decided I needed to walk my talk. So, I journaled my own positive actions for peace, green-living, and health each day for two years and posted these via social media and on the website. I learned so much from this exercise and it strengthened my daily awareness and knowledge of and connection with the Austin community and beyond. As a result of one of my simple positive actions for peace, I ended up traveling to Kenya and teaching art to high school students. The power of intention is amazing. It sparks discovery and takes you on adventures that you could not have imagined.

Another outcome of this exploration was discovering the Charter for Compassion, an international organization that provides education, resources, and networking to strengthen the science and practice of compassion in the world. I redefined my positive actions for peace, green-living, and health into terms of compassion. I coined the phrase “3D Compassion” to represent the three interdependent and integral dimensions of compassion: caring for others, self, and the Earth. I feel it is important to specify caring for the Earth since this is frequently missing from the definitions of compassion. I learned that scientific evidence supports the importance of compassion to personal and community well-being. I began volunteering as an Education Associate of the Charter for Compassion and joined the Leadership Team of the Compassion Games International, helping to engage people in the Compassion Games locally and internationally. The Charter for Compassion launched the Compassionate Cities campaign. I realized that Austin was not on the list, even though there are so many non-profits and compassionate programs and services happening in our city. So, I started the Compassionate Austin movement in July 2014.

As the volunteer Founder and Director of the Compassionate Austin movement, I engaged people in monthly meetings and collaborations with other city groups and organizations. On April 14, 2016, the Austin City Council passed a resolution designating Austin as a Compassionate City! This is an aspirational, inclusive resolution, emphasizing the importance of 3D Compassion and the essential role that each of us has in creating a more compassionate community. I launched the OpenIDEO Austin Chapter in December 2017 as a volunteer forum for design-thinking to address local and global challenges. In Austin, we created a unique model by being both a Compassionate City and an OpenIDEO City Chapter. We were the 1st city in the world with this innovative “mash-up.” The Austin OpenIDEO Chapter engaged people in projects and meetings for 2 1/2 years and was set to continue, however, the Covid-19 pandemic stalled progress. In 2019, I partnered with the New Story Festival in Austin to create the Compassionate Austin Co-op, individuals and organizations pledged to practice and strengthen 3D Compassion. The Compassionate Austin website identifies the Compassionate Austin Co-op Members and also Compassionate Austin “Hallmarks”: key commitments, programs and institutions that represent the infrastructure of Compassionate Austin. The website also highlights the Compassionate Austin Leadership Team: individuals who lead compassionate action efforts in Austin and mobilize our community for compassion. I am constantly learning from them and feel privileged to know these amazing innovators and compassion advocates. The website offers a roadmap for people to engage in compassionate action in Austin.

Compassionate Austin is an inclusive movement. We are not a separate non-profit. Instead, we embrace and work to elevate and champion all compassionate action in Austin and neighboring communities. We are part of the Charter for Compassion’s global Compassionate Communities campaign. There are over 400 compassionate communities worldwide. The Charter for Compassion provides the hub to help us stay connected with the other Compassionate Cities in Texas as well as other parts of the U.S. and globally. Each compassionate community operates differently. Compassionate Austin exists to increase awareness, knowledge, and practice of 3D compassion. We adopt a supportive, city-wide collaboration model. We issue monthly newsletters and have active social media communications. The people in our city truly define the essence of Compassionate Austin. My volunteer work in leading the Compassionate Austin movement is ongoing.

In 2020, I shifted my medical consultant job to focus on the environment and climate change. Climate change is the most important public health issue of our time, and I am committed to devoting my time and energy to help address it. In June 2020, I began work as a Medical Consultant for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). This work has been extremely rewarding. I am collaborating locally with the University of Texas Dell Medical School, engaging medical students in environmental activism; learning from environmentally vulnerable communities in Houston; collaborating with multiple organizations to advance environmental health education with a specific focus on health care providers; mentoring an Internal Medicine Fellow in Climate and Health Science Policy; and more. I am inspired daily by the hard work and dedication of the EDF team and the multitude of others tackling climate change. Compassion and environmental action go hand in hand. We each have role and each of us can make a difference! Awareness, knowledge, and action are key!

Also, for the past 20 years, I have studied Kung Fu and Tai Chi at the Austin Shaolin-Do martial arts school (with Elder Master Joe Schaefer). This has been an amazing journey of personal growth. I cannot stress enough the importance of this practice in my life. Kung Fu and Tai Chi improve both physical and mental well-being. I am now a Master (5th degree Black Belt) in Kung Fu and a Sifu (3rd degree Black Sash) in Tai Chi. I currently teach tai chi and my journey continues.

My love of exploration and wildlife has taken me on service volunteer trips to Africa (two trips to Kenya; one to Ghana; and one to South Africa). Each trip has been amazing and has given me much greater insight into the world. On one trip to Kenya, I met Dr. Jane Goodall and introduced the peace, green-living, and health challenge to Kenya’s Jane Goodall Roots and Shoots program. Most recently, in 2019, I went to South Africa in a volunteer wildlife conservation trip with Wild Tomorrow Fund, a wonderful organization dedicated to creating more wild spaces and supporting neighboring communities.

Throughout my life, I have enjoyed writing poetry. I love to write poems about nature and justice. During the pandemic, I have benefited from walking in nature. The healing power of nature is amazing! I’ve tried to capture some of this in my poetry. Artistry is all around us.

Most important, I am privileged to be the mother of a wonderful son (and now daughter-in-law) and the wife of a wonderful husband. I would not trade these roles for anything. My time with them (and my extended family and friends) is cherished and gives me constant inspiration.

Throughout my adult years, I’ve been inspired by “The Star Thrower” or “Starfish Story” by Loren Eiseley. It keeps me going. What we do each day, even the smallest of things, matters. And, when we show up, with compassion as our driving force, our lives are filled with adventure, meaning, and purpose.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
So much to do and so little time.

I have been saddened and disheartened by the politics in our country and the apparent lack of compassion and failure to tackle climate change. We all need to put aside our differences, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. We can no longer avoid this issue. It is a public health crisis.

Sometimes people erect silos and are less inclusive than they could be. It is hard sometimes to bridge these silos and break down barriers to enable people to work together.

The pandemic stalled the progress we had made with the Austin OpenIDEO Chapter.

Sometimes compassion is seen as “soft” instead of powerful. We need to increase awareness of the scientific evidence that teaching and practicing compassion skills are essential.

We need to be careful in how we speak. One word can derail years of positive work or, on the other hand, can inspire greatness. Words have power.

We love surprises, fun facts and unexpected stories. Is there something you can share that might surprise us?
I am a 5th degree black belt in Kung Fu and 3rd degree black sash in Tai Chi.

Africa is perhaps my favorite continent to visit. I have traveled on service trips to Africa four times.

Some of my favorite beings: elephants, giraffe, trees, butterflies, octopus, and starfish. I believe that we human beings have so much to learn from the depth of intelligence and feelings of other beings in the world.

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