Symposium Unplugged Greeley Karen

Living into Our Equity Work: Looking Back and Ahead


Many are familiar with the term “leaning in,” but we're talking about it as “living into” whatever we’re doing, especially with a new strategy that we are earnestly putting to test. So, as we closed out 2018 and collectively reflected on how the year went for us, we changed the frame and began talking about how we’ve been “living into” our commitment to equity across and within Colorado communities.

I think I like it better, and I want to share our perspectives on it by reflecting on 2018 and forecasting what’s on the horizon for 2019. Living into the work we’ve committed to means we have to be intentional about how we approach implementing the Foundation’s mission and strategic framework. If I had to summarize how we’ll be spending our time in 2019, it would be in these three areas:

1. We must get clearer about what “inequity” looks like as a lived experience.

There is one thing I know for certain about inequity. There is no cookie-cutter definition that does inequity justice. It’s deeply personal. Being an expert on inequity doesn’t require a PhD – it stems from lived experience.

Our definition of health equity is that it exists when there are no unnecessary, avoidable, unfair, unjust or systemically-caused differences in health status.

Our definition of health equity is that it exists when there are no unnecessary, avoidable, unfair, unjust, or systemically-caused differences in health status.

But we want to get deeper into the lived experience of Coloradans facing inequities, to see if we’ve landed in the right place. Gaining these perspectives is critical to us understanding what we face. And it varies depending on where you live.

That’s one of the reasons why we’ve deepened how we work in communities. We need local “world view,” if you will. That takes both time and trusting relationships.

How does this help us be impactful? Because most strategy is based on evidence (e.g., scientific studies, experimental evidence, research evidence, etc.) and best practices, which are important, but sometimes lack in cultural and social world views.

We want to reach Coloradans for whom health is furthest from reach. That means we must have insight into their lives and needs. In addition to continuing to deepen how our program staff work across the state, we have a couple other important new efforts underway:

  • In 2018, we took a first step forward in our commitment to understanding how Coloradans feel and think about health. Last October, we released our first poll in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation that examined Coloradans’ perspectives on a range of health issues. We intend to continue building out this type of work through various types of research and a long-term commitment to gaining a better pulse on how Coloradans think and feel about health.
  • In 2019, our Evaluation and Learning team will hit the road to talk more about our commitment to equitable evaluation, which strips away traditional thinking around how we consider and use evidence to inform a practice or approach. It sets the stage for evaluation to be conceptualized, implemented and utilized in a manner that is consistent with and promotes equity. It considers cultural and historical (sometimes systemic) context, for example, in a way that could dramatically change how we work.

2. Being “community-sensitive” is key to how we work and communicate.

On one of my road trips last year, I learned something really important: The word “stigma” does not translate cleanly in Spanish. We all use this term frequently in describing challenges within the behavioral health sector and more. “Stigma” is a critical concept when it comes to equity. Yet, for some, it may not make literary sense.

Being “community-sensitive” is a key component of our commitment to transparency, and it extends beyond traditional “customer service.” “Community-sensitive” is how we like to talk about meeting community where they are, being culturally appropriate and sensitive to who lives there, how they live and how they interact in the local community setting. As we build the muscles to be more culturally-appropriate and give folks the tools they need to understand our work, we’re trying on a variety of new approaches:

  • Meeting communities and populations culturally where they are. One thing we’ve learned in the past year is that this means we must go far beyond simply translating materials into other languages, especially if it’s our first time engaging with a population who is monolingual. But this is also about how we show up and engage, recognizing and honoring the local culture. We have a lot to learn, but getting this right is a key priority in 2019 and beyond.
  • Getting away from our own internal jargon, which can be difficult for grantees or partners to understand. Through messaging surveys, we learned that what seems clear to us with our cornerstone language is less clear to those we work with. We’re in the process of clarifying our cornerstone statements as a result.
  • Responding thoughtfully when we hear “through the grapevine” that a question is swirling in the community. Recently, we’ve heard there is confusion related to how we meet our annual Internal Revenue Service (IRS) payout requirements. The bottom line is that we meet or exceed IRS payments every year, and reading a 990 isn’t easy if you aren’t a tax expert. For example, in 2016, we transitioned to a private foundation, which presented a tremendous change for how we approach our annual payout. To help clarify our financial position, we’ve reworked the Financial section of our website and created a guiding tool that will help anyone navigate our financial documents. We also enhanced the table that reports our annual community investment to clarify when and how our payout requirements changed due to our tax status change.

3. We’re actively embracing what we still have to learn.

I recently reviewed a report that showed trending news topics in Colorado. I wasn’t surprised to see that behavioral health topped the list of news story topics. But I was surprised to see affordable housing beat out primary care.

It’s exciting to be learning about the new priorities we’re taking on, but there’s a lot we don’t know yet. Because we have less experience in working toward equity in the affordable housing and food spaces, we’re in the throes of deep learning. This includes research, finding new partners and considering what challenges and opportunities each of these issues bring to bear. You can expect to find more opportunities through events and other activities that allow you to join us on this journey.

Another area we’re learning about is convening, which is not something many consider new to our Foundation. In fact, bringing people together is something of a hallmark for us. Our annual Colorado Health Symposium has been bringing experts together for more than 30 years. What’s new is doing this at the local level. Showing up and trying to pull folks together locally for a fruitful conversation about a tough topic is a whole new endeavor. As we learned last month at a Symposium Unplugged in Greeley, we didn’t explore the right set of solutions for those folks who joined us, but they gave us grace. We walked away with more than 100 new relationships that we are grateful for and will continue to nurture. 

In the spirit of living into our commitment to equity, I look forward to continuing my personal efforts as our President and CEO in being a both good listener and a good sharer as it relates to our progress as an organization.

In 2019, I’m looking for new ways to regularly report to the community what we’re up to – and also be listening to the grapevine when there are issues we need to address. If you have questions or ideas for how I might engage in this way, contact me directly. As always, I look forward to hearing from you.

I wish you and yours a happy and healthy New Year.


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