20 Dec End-of-Year Reflection between HCF President and Outgoing Board Chair
This year has been like no other. Our region and communities, particularly our Legacy & Equity zip codes, have devastatingly felt the impact of the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and structural racism. Our President Maria Pesqueira and IDHS Secretary Grace Hou, whose term as Board Chair ends at the end of 2020, came together (virtually, of course!) to reflect upon her tenure, the challenges faced this year, recovery in our region, and learnings they will carry into 2021.
Listen to or read their conversation below.
Thank you, Grace, for this opportunity to have this conversation and reflect. 2020 has been certainly an unprecedented year and, as we reflect, not just on this year but on your tenure. I’m taking this moment, not just to reflect but to thank you for your leadership as we transitioned the foundation to the Healthy Communities Foundation and our restart. And then, responding to a major pandemic that has hit our communities so hard in this last year. So, any thoughts on all this as we reflect on this, Grace?
The main thing that I am thinking about now is just how proud I am of your leadership, Maria, as I see your face on the Zoom call. Our interlocking paths along the course of our career, for decades at this point. I am just so thankful that through the experience of creating Healthy Communities Foundation and then you taking leadership, that we’ve been able to work very closely together. I’d only always heard amazing things about you and so I’m just grateful that at this time in our career we get to work closely together, we were able to be partners on this amazing endeavor.
“I think the resiliency and passion and the can-do spirit in impossible circumstances of the leaders in our sector, the human services sector, the health & human services sector, is just phenomenal.”
It’s been a labor of love in recreating the Healthy Communities Foundation, to fashion it in a way that we think could best serve the communities that it was intended to serve. I am proud of the work we’ve done together. The Board that was established in 2016 is amazing. I think we’ve grown very closely together in a short amount of time. We’ve established trust. I think the singular focus on creating one of the best foundations in our region, in our country, was an easy decision to make. So if you keep that as your focus, everything else falls in line and I think we brought only good intentions to the table. So, being the Chair of Healthy Communities Foundation was easy in that way because we all were there for the right reasons.
There is so much to say about the response to the pandemic. Our personal lives have been disrupted greatly. Our work lives have been, too. I think about the health and human services system, of course. A system that you and I have grown up in and have dedicated our careers and our lives to this region. So I think even though there has been so much heartache and we’ve seen the disproportionate impact on the communities we’ve spent our whole careers devoted to be hardest hit, I think that the resiliency and passion and the can-do spirit in impossible circumstances of the leaders in our sector, the human services sector, the health and human services sector, is just phenomenal. I think that is what we need to continue to remember and to look at and recognize the heroic efforts of everybody during these really challenging times.
Grace, I want to thank you for your leadership in all of this and your vision. As Chair, the re-founding Chair of our Foundation as we restarted and guiding us and bringing your skillset and your values to this shared leadership approach, I think has created the beautiful spirit that is in place with our Board. And in a short period of time, create policies and systems, from a governance perspective, that is truly rooted in those values. Who would have thought that those values would be so important during the midst of this pandemic?
Again, I’m in awe that some of the perspectives we have addressing health equity from a racial and ethnic perspective, looking at our region and especially knowing the demographics of our region and assuring that we did so, in that matter, came from you.
If you want to share a little bit about what does that means. It’s almost as if you had this crystal ball, Grace, and having these skill sets that you brought in as well as helping us address this current crisis due to this global pandemic.
I often say that I’m thankful that I had a year under my belt as Secretary of Illinois Department of Human Services before the pandemic hit so we could spend some time building our team and really rebuilding the infrastructure of our department after many hard years due to financial constraints and the budget impasse here in Illinois. I think that the same can be said of Healthy Communities Foundation in our rebirth and our repopulating the Board and the leadership. We had a few years under our belt to do that so that when the pandemic hit early this year, we had a very strong constitution and a very strong foundation of not just policies and procedures but of trust. The most valuable thing that an organization can have, I think in really challenging times, is solid trust amongst its leadership and all of its team members.
Because you have to make hard decisions and big decisions in short amounts of time, and, if you don’t have the underlying trust and respect for each other, you can’t do it. Because then you question every decision, you question motives. You know when there is a crisis, you have to make decisions fast. The very definition of a crisis is that there aren’t rules and procedures necessarily that help govern things moving forward.
So, I think that we have focused, I have tried to focus as Chair of Healthy Communities Foundation, number one is to develop trust and lasting relationships between us and Board Members. Because that is the investment that will reap rewards in the future. I would say that is my number one job as Board Chair, as I saw it, was to build trust within the Board, with staff, with you, so that we can make the hard decisions because without that you can be mediocre, you can make the easy decisions and truck along and have the status quo. I know that nobody who is associated with Healthy Communities Foundation wants just the status quo. So, we were in a good position, not that anybody would want a pandemic at any time in our lives, but we were well situated to really respond and that the staff led by you–you have an amazing team there–they really listen to the community and then responded in the best way that we could.
Thank you, Grace. As we think about 2021, we are ending 2020 very soon, what do you see lying ahead?
First of all, we know and we are grateful to the fact that you will stay on our Board as Immediate Past Board Chair to continue to provide us your leadership! Appreciate that. As we think about 2021 and having the scope that you have, what do you see coming to our region?
Obviously, we are still in recovery, even as we see the light at the end of the tunnel, with vaccines and increased testing. But we are still in the middle of a very significant surge and I know all of us are feeling it professionally and more of our family members and loved ones are becoming infected and dealing with that. That continues to be very hard and that is going to continue to spill over into 2021. But with the vaccine approvals and roll-outs now, we see the light at the end of the tunnel and so we’re hopeful and optimistic that we will be able to return to some semblance of being with other people. Soon hugs and being able to be humans without being separated by screens.
I think that we, the human services system, are going to be moving to the front lines with really dealing with the economic impact that this pandemic has had on the communities that have been hardest hit. Certainly, our region, as we know and as you have shared with all of us and continue to educate, has been of the hardest-hit communities in the country. You know that our Board wants to double down. We want to be bold. We want to be thoughtful and strategic even as we make a significant investment in the immediate term, but we also want to be around for the long-term. Because the problems we are talking about didn’t come with the pandemic. They were alive and well before then. And even as we make significant investments in the coming year–hopefully, there will be federal relief arriving also–the systemic issues are not going to disappear. We need to continue to invest in our relationship with grantees and understand the needs of community members.
So the work is just going to continue to be critically important and Healthy Communities Foundation has such an important role to play as a leader in the region, but even as a leader in philanthropy, which I think is just remarkable. The footprint that you’ve already made in the country, in the sector.
“All of a sudden, philanthropy has come together in even bolder ways to listen to the hyper-local perspective. That has been a learning for philanthropy as a whole–to listen to individuals on the ground. Communities have the answers.”
One of the pieces that I’ve loved about our Board Meetings with you and, being at any meeting with you where you are chairing/facilitating, we always have a great way to start to center us. You have this way of centering us whether it is with one word, a thought, story, or reflection. With that same spirit, Grace, if I were to ask you the learnings that we carry into the coming year — a thought, a reflection, or 2-3 words that you would use?
That’s so hard because I’ve learned so many lessons. I would say that laughter and joy even in the face of terrifying fear and unknowns and crises and tragedy has sustained me and our team. Even as we fret and we cry and we wring our hands, we laugh together. That is so important to relieve stress; to bring us closer together to know that we’re in this together. I think laughter is a sign of hope that you could still see some joy in really hard moments. Even as I think about all the miraculous and hard decisions and things that we’ve had to do this past year and the tragedy we have seen, there is still laughter and joy.
“Let’s not have short memories next year. Let’s remember this experience so that we can prevent it in the future and then undo some of the inequities we sit in and feel so severely.”
I think that we can’t be afraid to talk about that. Even as a public servant, I’m proud of the many hours and hard work, and personal sacrifices our team has made. Up and down the line–front line to my immediate team–people have had to make decisions at work that impact their own personal lives. But we’ve had times of levity and I think that will be important moving forward.
The other thing that I would say, even in the midst of the pandemic, it has highlighted inequities, increased violence, and again these things have been around for centuries, so we need to continue to use the time in the spotlight to move significant change in that regard and transformation. And Healthy Communities Foundation is part of that, the Department of Human Services is part of it. Let’s not have short memories next year. Let’s remember this experience so that we can number one–prevent it in the future–and then undo some of the inequities we sit in and feel so severely. Let’s not have amnesia. Let’s do something about it. That’s what I would say.
In this moment in time with so much turmoil, if anything, I’ve learned the importance of coming back to the center. Nothing can be accomplished alone. The pandemic has taught us how we are all connected and related to each other. Whether we create walls or what have you, this pandemic has shown us that our health and well-being are connected to each other. As people, as community, we have this responsibility to work collectively. So I think it’s not so much a learning as it is a reminder of that. The other piece that has been a reminder is the systemic inequities that have been in place prior to this pandemic and the data that our communities have been showing and sharing with philanthropy. All of a sudden philanthropy has come together in even bolder ways to listen to the hyper-local perspective. That has been a learning for philanthropy as a whole–to listen to individuals on the ground. Communities have the answers.
I absolutely agree and I think that is the spirit that drives the Foundation.
Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.