When Health Forward listed an opening for a new evaluation & learning officer, I was intrigued by the emphasis on “learning.” It’s easy to agree about the value of learning from what we do, but it can be challenging to find time away from day-to-day demands to reflect on what our work teaches us.
Often when we think about learning, we envision a classroom or a textbook. Although my formal education was completed many years ago, making a professional transition prompted me to reflect on lessons from my career that I hope to carry with me into this new role.
Fresh out of graduate school, one of the first big on-the job lessons was this: addressing new health problems requires collaboration and creativity. I joined the New York City Department of Correction’s health division when crack addiction was an emerging challenge. Health staff were focused on clinical needs, and uniformed staff emphasized security and fiscal concerns. Together, we developed a strategy that was new at the time and addressed both perspectives: embedding a drug treatment program in the jail. Collaboration produced a program that offered compassionate care, reduced jail violence, and lowered operating costs.
The next stop was New York State government, where work in the Lieutenant Governor’s office highlighted this valuable lesson: complex social problems require a multi-faceted approach. I served on the staff of the Anti-Drug Abuse Council, which brought eight state agencies together to develop a comprehensive policy agenda to address the prevention, treatment, and enforcement needs stemming from alcohol and drug addiction. It was clear that no single approach or agency could affect sufficient change alone, and that stepping out of silos to forge a comprehensive plan was a better strategy.
Working at Catholic Charities in Albany, New York, brought focus to another important lesson: it is essential to work downstream and look upstream at the same time. Our staff provided direct service to meet a wide range of needs for vulnerable people, especially those living in poverty. But we knew the demand for that work would continue and grow unless the root causes were addressed, so together we also advocated for policies to eliminate the social conditions that led many of the agency’s clients to need services.
During 10-plus years of consulting in the KC metro, another lesson was consistently reinforced: a diverse health and human service system is necessary to meet the unique needs of individual people, neighborhoods and communities. My projects with clients such as early educators, emergency assistance providers, funders, community coalitions, multi-service agencies, and others demonstrated time and again that listening to understand community needs and tailoring responses to meet specific circumstances is foundational to our work.
In just the short time I’ve been at Health Forward, it is easy to see that learning from experience — our own and others’ — is a part of the culture here. As we seek to increase our understanding of the health equity issues that affect vulnerable people, I am excited that my role will include the opportunity to tap into the experience of our community partners. Their insight into both persistent and emerging health concerns can offer an invaluable perspective on important questions we hope to explore.
It’s no surprise that my on-the-job lessons were taught through the generosity of the mentors and colleagues that I’m pleased to call professional friends. There is tremendous potential for us to learn from each other. This idea was succinctly summarized in a recent interview with a business leader. He referenced a familiar quote, “The smartest person in the room is the room,” and then concluded, “It’s all of us together.”
I’m looking forward to working with Health Forward colleagues and community partners, and to all the learning we will do together.