Karen walking across a bridge with community members.

Fearlessness: Our Key 2020 Strategy

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I woke up in Durango on my first day back in the office this year to hear from Coloradans who are experiencing homelessness, food insecurity and addiction – an opportunity I take often in my role to connect directly with Coloradans and their families. This never fails to ground me.

I visited a local homeless camp and a soup kitchen, met with youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or queer, and spent time with staff from area nonprofits. At one of these visits, I ran into a woman I met last year. I’ll call her Amanda to protect her privacy. 

Amanda Reminded Me Why We Must Listen

As Amanda caught me up on her life, I noticed her young daughter, who was facing some speech delays a year ago, was happily prancing around the room – thriving. Yet, as we talked, it became clear that Amanda’s family’s circumstances had changed in other ways since we’d last met, and not for the better.

A year ago, Amanda was beginning to navigate a complex web of services to help stabilize her life. She was on the cusp of breaking the cycle of poverty that had pulled her two steps back after each hard-fought step forward. Now, at the dawn of 2020, she had a safe home that was affordable. She was saving money. Her daughter was making developmental strides.
 
But one seemingly avoidable snag was threatening to put her dangerously back to square one. She hadn’t received her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit in eight weeks due to processing delays at the local agency. As a result, her hard-earned savings were being drained so her family could eat, but that wouldn’t last long. She was back to visiting food banks and unsure if she could continue to afford her apartment.

As Amanda graciously shared her story, I was grounded by the impact something entirely out of a person’s control can have on their family’s life. It’s conversations like this that ground me, again and again, in a single experience that illustrates the reason the Foundation must deliver on our mission. And, as conditions impacting health worsen for people who have historically had less power, privilege or income, our responsibility is more critical than ever.

I left the conversation with Amanda wondering if she’d lose her home, if her daughter’s progress would stall, and how her family would fare in the coming weeks, months and years. The solutions to these concerns are still beyond our reach, tied up by oppressive systems that perpetuate inequities. And yet, Amanda was absolutely fearless in the face of such uncertainty. She’s developed resilience through unending attempts to reach for a better life, and her will to regain the life she was living just a few weeks ago was palpable.

This is why the Foundation’s vision reflects the vision of real people across Colorado – that they can say they have all they need to live healthy lives.

Fearlessness as a Strategy

My trip to Durango was full of stories like Amanda’s. While everyone had a different answer when I asked what they need to be healthy, each person was absolutely fearless in sharing their stories – just as they are in their determination to be successful and self-reliant in life – to thrive despite human-designed systems and societal constructs that hold far too many back. 

I returned to Denver with a renewed, inspired sense of how powerful it can be to pursue change with fearlessness. It struck me that fearlessness must be our next step at the Foundation – a strategy in our toolbox to bring health in reach for all Coloradans.

We know it’s time to move even further beyond the status quo, and to step outside what’s comfortable. We know when we show up in community – not to do the talking, but to listen – we find that the realities of people’s lives bring our work into focus. 

The things we’re hearing are calling us to be fearless. Fearless in our pursuit to better understand injustices impacting health. Fearless in our willingness to call attention to avoidable barriers. Fearless in our support of community-inspired ideas and unconventional solutions. 
 
We need to examine for ourselves what it means to be more fearless in how we think, act, show up and use our voice. In 2020 and beyond, we are going to speak up, and be a lightning rod if needed, about inequities affecting the people we serve. We will discuss things that are considered undiscussable, and invite shared learning about the “why” behind injustices related to health. 

This doesn’t mean we aren’t afraid, but we can’t let fear hold us back. We have to take risks and, in some cases, simply be willing to start somewhere – anywhere – even, and especially, when barriers to health seem insurmountable, or injustices too deeply rooted to upend. 

Living into Fearlessness in 2020

Here are a few ways we’re putting fearlessness at the center of our work this year:

  • At this year’s Colorado Health Symposium, we’re tackling the impact of race and national origin on health. In past years, we’ve explored how racism has affected the health of Black communities, the conditions that support and erode mental health, and the connection between housing and health. Now, we’ll learn how people from Colorado’s refugee, immigrant and Native American communities pursue health. We’ll dig into the role that history, policy and culture play in their health, and we’ll experience treasured ceremonies, traditions, food, art, music and more from these communities.
  • We’re launching another public opinion poll, and hope to continue it annually as a form of listening. This is a huge opportunity for us to create a trusted and accurate reflection of the opinions and priorities of Coloradans on a variety of health equity policy issues. It’s also a critical pathway to support advocacy needs and infuse these learnings into local, state and federal policy. This comes after a year of unprecedented threats to the health of Coloradans and our boldest set of policy priorities in a while.
  • We’re inviting nonprofit executives into daily life at the Foundation through our new Nonprofit Sabbatical program featuring a unique executive-in-residence opportunity. This is an unprecedented offering for executive leaders to get a behind-the-scenes look at us, while inviting their candid feedback about how we work and operate.
  • As we continue learning as an organization about the practices of diversity, equity and inclusivity (DEI) – or as I heard recently, “justice, equity, diversity and inclusion” (JEDI) – we’re taking steps to encourage and learn alongside the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors in adopting JEDI as inseparable from our ability to meaningfully support the health of communities. For example, we’re centering equity at the heart of our evaluation practice and exploring power dynamics that exist between funders and grantees that perpetuate systems of inequity in communities. If you’re interested in this work, check out the Collaboratory on Equitable Evaluation.

All of these are new pathways to meet our mission, and within each is a commitment to act fearlessly, to show up with respectful curiosity, and to build trusting relationships with folks like Amanda as we work to better understand health inequities and what we can do differently to address the roots of these barriers. 

We welcome your reactions, and invite your participation in this work. That starts with me. If you have a wish, a point of critique or a question, I’d love to hear it. Feel free to email me directly. Best wishes for a healthy and productive 2020, and may we all be fearless in our pursuits to show up and speak up for Coloradans who deserve better.

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