The Road Ahead – Conversation Between HCF President and New Board Chair

The Road Ahead – Conversation Between HCF President and New Board Chair

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Amalia Rioja, whose tenure as our new Board Chair began in January, talks with our President Maria Pesqueira about what the road to recovery looks like for our region, the role of Healthy Communities Foundation, and what she looks forward to in her new role.

Listen to or read their conversation below.

MARIA: 

Hi Amalia, Happy New Year, what a year already!

AMALIA:

Happy New Year to you, Maria.

MARIA:

First of all, welcome to this conversation, and thank you for taking time to help us reflect and think forward. As we celebrate your leadership at the Healthy Communities Foundation, I know that many of our grantee partners, our community stakeholders will want to hear about the work of the Healthy Communities Foundation, but also want to get to know you, Amalia, so thank you for taking this time.

“It shouldn’t be that based on the zip code of where you were born will determine how long you live and what health challenges you have. Health equity means that we are no longer bound by these factors outside of our control that determine the quality of life we lead.”

What Does Health Equity Mean to You?

As we think about the Healthy Communities Foundation–the name “Healthy Communities Foundation”– sometimes when we think about health, the theme comes back to physical health, as opposed to thinking about the overall social determinants of health, which could mean access to food, mental health, as some examples. From your perspective, and thinking about the Healthy Communities Foundation’s mission to measurably improve the health and wellbeing of individuals in our communities in our region by promoting health equity, with that context, what does health equity mean to you?

AMALIA:

That’s a great question, Maria, and I think it can mean a lot of different things to folks. I think that we’ve learned over the last few years that there are more and more data showing the disparity among communities that impact health in a lot of different ways. To me, health equity is so interrelated with the social determinants of health–that is, having a living wage, having access to quality health care, being able to navigate the governmental system. It shouldn’t be that based on the zip code of where you were born will determine how long you live and what health challenges you have. To me, health equity means that we’re no longer bound by these factors outside of our control that determines the quality of life we lead and health issues that we may or may not face.

Energizing the Spirit and Potential of Communities in Our Region

MARIA:

Thanks, Amalia, for that perspective. You have seen the foundation since and been a part of the rebirth of our foundation. So much has transpired since our rebirth. As we think about the focal point of that rebirth, and getting to where we’re at currently in 2021, especially as we think about COVID-19, the pandemic, the economic crisis in our area. As our new board chair, Amalia, how do you see the Healthy Communities Foundation continuing to honor the core value of energizing the spirit and potential of communities in our region this year and moving forward?

AMALIA:

Well, first of all, my predecessor, the prior chair, Grace Hou, left big shoes to fill.  She did an excellent job of laying a solid foundation for our work. So it’s an honor and privilege for me to step into the chair position. But honestly, with you, Maria, and the staff, that is running the foundation, have done an excellent job. So in a lot of ways, for me as chair, it’s only continuing the momentum that we’ve built over the last several years. But I also think we’re at a unique point as a foundation. We are stepping up and I know my fellow board members would agree. In the last eight, nine months, we have thought long and hard about what our role is. And it’s really threefold.

We’re increasing the amount of funding that we’re giving out to grantees. We are more focused on the health equity issues and looking at everything through that lens—an equity lens. And finally, if nothing else, we exist to be able to mobilize our resources in a crisis like this. So, in my view, and I think my fellow board members would agree that–what’s the point of our foundation if we don’t step up in a crisis, like in the pandemic, when we’re really needed?

I should also mention that thanks to your leadership, Maria, you have been able to get us focused on where we can have the most impact. Part of that is also creating an emergency fund that can be tapped into without outside of the regular grant cycle process. I think that’s really helpful.

What the Pandemic Has Revealed and Has Continued to Impact 

This whole pandemic has been obviously overwhelming for everyone. But it’s also revealed the significant gaps that exist. I think we could probably talk for 10 hours about the gaps and what they mean, especially for the Latino community and for the African American community. At every phase of this pandemic, there are more and more challenges and barriers that become more obvious. In my mind, we’ve been really disproportionally impacted right from the very get-go, from our community members, our frontline workers–they’re in jobs that expose them to the virus, make them more vulnerable. Then yet, they may not have adequate health care, they don’t have the support system that others do.

When you think about the digital divide, I think that’s something too, that I want to focus on because if at every turn, people can’t work remotely, they don’t have Wi-Fi at home, their kids can’t do their homework, then they become even more and more disconnected, and also socially isolated without the resources to advance themselves. So I think at every phase, there are more and more challenges.

“What’s the point of our foundation if we don’t step up in a crisis when we’re really needed?”

Now in the vaccine phase–and, Maria, you probably have a lot of data on that at your fingertips–we’re already seeing the inequity in the distribution of vaccines. And part of it is just because of everything having to be distributed quickly and trying to target by priority. It’s been challenging for the government, for all stakeholders.

But I’ll share with you one quick example that I’ve seen firsthand, and that is that the vaccine is mainly being distributed on waiting lists that are all digitally based. So not everybody has access to Wi-Fi, a laptop, a cell phone, or maybe not knowing how to download an app to get into the portal where they can get on a waiting list to get information. So, again, the gap can be widening in so many different ways.

More About Amalia

MARIA:

Thank you, Amalia, for that perspective. As we think about our role in communities and being bold. I am extremely grateful for that nudge, or I would say the cheering that we’re receiving from our board members to continue listening, engaging, and being informed by community. So as we think about being a community-informed, community-engaged foundation, it comes back to the fact that our board members and you as our chair, are community members.

Tell us about growing up in our region. You’re home-grown from our region so you know firsthand the importance of listening to community. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

AMALIA:

Sure. So I was born in Bolivia. My family immigrated to Chicago in the early 70s—I was two years old when I came to the Chicago area and grew up in the western suburbs. I currently live in River Forest. I feel very lucky. I grew up with great access to the educational system and being able to choose a career. I’m a lawyer, my day job is a lawyer that I find really gratifying. But I’ve never lost the perspective of an immigrant. I grew up going to Bolivia spending summers there, I have a lot of–actually, most of my relatives are still in Bolivia. So that connection, the experience, the lens that I see things through, it’s from an immigrant perspective.

When we talk about community, that is one huge shift from the foundation’s perspective from the prior iteration of it. I think for the first time once we were installed, and Maria, you were at the helm, it was an enormous shift from not having a framework to being community-based, community-focused, community-embedded. To me, that means a lot because throughout the years I’ve also been involved in a lot of nonprofits and doing community work. It’s important for us to value the voice of the community. And so we follow, we listen to the community and they guide us.

We’re not in some ivory tower handing out grant monies. We want to be focused on the people that we serve because at the end of the day, they’re who we should be accountable to. We have a responsibility to use the dollars in a way that will make the most impact and we have to listen to the people on the frontlines about how we can best do that.

Being Bold in This Moment

MARIA:

Amalia, we are almost at a year since the pandemic has had such an impact. We’ve had ongoing conversations on the disparities that were present pre-COVID and many of the inequities lifted as a result of COVID. I am extremely grateful for the board’s enthusiasm, to move boldly to respond to the community needs.  I know that moving forward, our investments will just be one piece of what it will take–it will take a relationship between community, the foundation, other philanthropic partners, government. Obviously, Healthy Communities Foundation cannot do it alone.

So as we move to 2021 and the work, we know that recovery is not going to be finished in 2021. Our communities will be hit for, unfortunately, a long period–past the vaccine period. If we take a look at how the recession hit many of our community members in 2008, that some of our communities were just starting to come out of that. COVID 19’s impact is going to have long-term ripple effects in our region. So I want to thank you, Amalia, and our Board for encouraging us to respond in this moment in time

“We have a responsibility to use the dollars in a way that will make the most impact and we have to listen to the people on the frontlines about how best to do that.”

AMALIA:

Thank you, Maria. I think we’ve all been like family members, we’re connected in so many ways. Our communities– all of them–are resilient. And I think that’s the resilience that we have to continue to cultivate and nurture.

For me during the pandemic on a personal level, what’s kept me grounded are my boys. Nez who’s 19 he’s a sophomore at Iowa State, studying history. He wants to be a history high school teacher. And Maximo who’s a junior in high school. Both of them are doing all classes remotely and we’ve been hunkered down since last March. We do go a little stir crazy for sure. But you know, I also am very lucky that I can work remotely from home, a lot of folks don’t have that option.

One other thing I wanted to mention that occurred to me is that I do see the work of the foundation as an onion, that we keep peeling back. When the pandemic started–okay, let’s see testing. Okay, how can we get more people tested? The barriers, the availability of the testing, and educating our community members to go get tested. But there’s fear, well-founded fear, whether they’re undocumented or just can’t take the time from work to get tested. So you peel back the onion. Then now with access to being able to get quality care if they do get COVID. That’s another huge barrier.

How does the foundation pivot to address that? And now in this next phase with the vaccine distribution? At the end of the day, we peel back all the layers that we have to get at the core, which would help us reach equity. But we’re constantly trying to be nimble and address issues as they come up. It is a challenge, but I’m looking forward to continuing the work. And Maria, you’ve been an excellent leader, and also being able to anticipate what’s coming around the corner, how do we best position ourselves.

Our Board’s Connection with Community and With Each Other

MARIA:

Thank you, Amalia, and thanks for reminding us that as we are peeling back these layers, that those layers are being lifted by our community partners, and our grantee partners. This work addressing the pandemic would not be possible were it not for the work of our community partners that are stakeholders in the region. Thank you, Amalia, for highlighting that.

One of the things I’m really grateful for from our board is that each one of you has a relationship to our region, each one of you is connected to the health and well-being of our communities. And so I’m really grateful for that perspective, and especially your leadership, Amalia, having come from years of experience of listening to community and incorporating them into policies that support the health and well-being of our communities. I can only imagine what we’ve done in three years’ time in the foundation’s rebirth as we continue to listen and be community-engaged and community-informed. Is there anything that you want to share with our community as we think about your tenure beginning, our work towards justice and peace and health for all?

Amalia, I’ve known you for many years, I think it’s part of your DNA. You’ve always worked towards this. Is there anything you want to share?

AMALIA:

I think it can be overwhelming at times. There are so many areas where folks need assistance, whether it’s, they lost their job, or they’ve lost someone in the pandemic and they’re feeling serious mental health issues. I think that is one area that I would like to focus on more than we have in the past–mental illness. How that is either surfaced or resurfaced more during the pandemic, and how people are experiencing incredible isolation, having been in this lockdown mode for so many months. Too many times in all communities, it’s something that we don’t acknowledge enough, maybe are ashamed to admit or to seek treatment. And I think that’s especially true, unfortunately, in the Latino community. It’s not considered a serious disease or condition. Oftentimes, people just don’t take any action, don’t get treatment until it’s too late. So that is one thing that, I would like to focus more on and, as we are almost at the one-year mark, of this pandemic, I think it’s only going to get worse, unfortunately. We’ll enter another phase. But, there’s so many competing, important interests, we can’t fund everything. So we have to make some hard decisions.

“We believe in social justice. We believe in equity and we believe in the community. With those grounding principles, we’re able to all row in the same direction.”

But, the last thing I’ll say is I absolutely love this board. There is an incredible amount of personal chemistry, energy. We don’t always agree on every issue. There is a sense of camaraderie and friendship, we’ve gotten to know each other as human beings, and all of us have the same value system. What I mean by that is that we believe in social justice. We believe in equity and we believe in the community. So with those grounding principles, we’re able to all row in the same direction.

And thanks to you, Maria, you’re the one who takes our ideas or concepts, our motivations, and you’re able to translate that into an action plan. With a team that’s built who can execute on it. I’m just so impressed with all of our staff members who I see as an extension of our family, who are so committed to the same goals and vision that we all share, it is really a labor of love.  

I’ve served on many, many boards over the years, and this by far is the one that’s been the most well-run, smoothly run and where there is just a lot of synergy among the board members. We all bring different things to the table. We have folks who run a nonprofit, we have people in the health industry, other lawyers like me, we’ve got finance folks. It’s been a really wonderful mix of people. So, in my mind, I feel very blessed to be involved.

I am excited about being the new chair. I’m excited about moving forward. And I want to be able to, through my role, have the most impact possible. I believe in servant leadership. You’re there to serve others. It’s not about your ego. It’s not about you. It’s not about what you can accomplish. It’s about what we do, collectively. And that provides great gratification to me.

MARIA:

Amalia, I am so grateful for you reminding us of the beautiful energy, the synchronicity that comes from our board and our team. And ultimately, as you mentioned, it is rooted in values. And it is those values that I think allow us to continue to be community-informed, community-engaged, data-driven. And I believe that is why we were able to respond quickly to COVID-19 needs in our region, because of those values our board brings, and that you help drive early on in developing these values. And so I’m looking forward to the next chapter as we continue to address the health and well-being from an equity lens in our region. Thank you, Amalia.

AMALIA:

Me as well. And I hope that we can have more town hall meetings as we had in person before the pandemic, and I’m looking forward to seeing people in person. I encourage people to reach out to me. I want to hear from our grantees and other stakeholders. And I think that that’s another way for me to be better informed. I think we can all be better informed.

Thank you, Maria, for your leadership, you’ve done a wonderful job. You have gotten us to this point, a point where, by the way, we’re a national role model for a health foundation and in a very short period of time. It’s just amazing to see that others are looking to us for guidance on how to create the best model to run a foundation like ours.

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