How did your youth and early adult years influence how you approach equity?
Growing up in a rural working class family in North Carolina, both of my parents worked in the cotton mills. Eventually, the mill closed and my father retired. My mother became a teachers' assistant in the South after desegregation. In retrospect, a couple things in my upbringing really stand out as core to who I am today.
First, I learned to grow up with an open mind in the midst of Jim Crow, which my parents shielded me from. And, I was a grade school student during desegregation, which was transitional and didn't just happen overnight. The experience of attending school at the helm of and after desegregation helped me learn about the commonalities we all have as humans, no matter our skin color. I eventually had to navigate two worlds - Black and White - and that gave me critical exposure to the stark differences between them. It also helped me navigate between and within them later in life.
As a fourth grader and during the transitional year before desegregation really took hold, my parents chose to send me to the White school that I was assigned to attend a year later. It was so scary. During that time, Black students could go the "White schools," as I did, but there were no White kids that went to the Black schools. Those of us who transitioned to White schools were afraid. At first, kids were mean to me. Then, they figured out I was smart and good at sports. Suddenly, they wanted to look at my notes, copy my tests and have me on their sports teams. Over time, the things I shared in common with my White classmates outnumbered any of our differences. To this day, several of those classmates are dear lifelong friends. And, after desegregation, I never had another Black teacher in middle school, high school or throughout nine years of college.
As I grew older, I learned to navigate both worlds. My Black friends would say, "you talk White." My White friends would say I was "acting Black." I learned more about how so much of our society and culture was and still is driven by White privilege and traditions. Fortunately, I had White allies and teachers who saw something in me. One of these teachers encouraged me to join the yearbook staff and I became the first Black editor. That was an important milestone for my growth, and a first time I was "the first" anything at something.
I started college at a community college and worked part-time as a bank teller. Later, I transferred to UNC Greensboro, where I really learned what to do in situations where others knew the ground rules, but I didn't. It took time and persistence. Later, I earned my master's degree and then a doctorate of education from Vanderbilt in Tennessee.
During this time in my life, I didn't have the language to say I was "first generation" or the first or only person in my family to receive a college education or to be hired for X job. I learned that
after being in those environments. Looking back, it was so valuable that I could navigate both the Black and the White worlds. It made me nimble. But I still had to be persistent in navigating the systems and rules that were created and maintained by people who looked different than I do.
In the early part of my career, I worked for a company who offered to pay for my PhD if I agreed to work there while I earned the degree... and then some -- a year for each year it took me to finish. I decided I to work full time and get my PhD in three years. The University said it couldn't be done, but I did it.
I realize now that I never viewed each challenge I faced in receiving my education and moving up the ladder professionally as definitive obstacles. To me, they were just things I had to deal with. I understand more now about the barriers I was crossing and it influenced how I want to help others overcome inequity barriers.
How did your parents deal with your success?
I am so lucky to have had two parents who loved me. They were raised in a time when you got a job and you stayed in that job your whole career. There was very little concept of career upward mobility. When I left my first and second jobs for better opportunities, they couldn't understand that. They said: "Why are you leaving a good job?" It was a very foreign concept to them.
Eventually, I moved out of North Carolina to Colorado Springs for a promotion at the Center for Creative Leadership. I was so afraid to move and they were afraid for me. At first, I was going to rent my house in North Carolina as a fall back, but in the end I decided to face my fears and sell it. My parents learned to trust my instincts, though they were far from the choices they knew how to make in the world they grew up in.
Whenever I would get a promotion or new opportunity, they would say: "Congratulations! Now, get over yourself!!" Their humility has had a big impact on my world view and the way I solicit and take in feedback from others at all levels.
What allows others to truly be successful in overcoming huge economic challenges?
People who experience episodic or persistent low income, poverty, homelessness, abuse and addiction can find a way out with the choice of their outlook. They figure out how to make a way out of
no way. This is a very valuable life skill that helps in all realms of personal life and business. You can only persist if you believe in yourself and believe that it's going to get better. You have to believe this deep in your soul. As you go through life, I believe that challenges and road blocks are always passengers with you. But you also need some additional passengers: optimism, perseverance, persistence and resilience.
How did you develop your equity vision for Colorado Health Foundation?
We originally had a vision to make Colorado the "Healthiest State in the Nation." But if you really consider that goal and achieve it, we would still leave 25% of the population behind. And, included in the 25% may well be many Coloradans with the least opportunities, income, power and privilege. That wasn't solving for inequity, so we re-centered our mission, identity and strategy on achieving health equity for Coloradans living on low income and who have the least power and privilege. We also committed to ensuring all we do is community-informed, because you can't do equity work in a bubble of philanthropy. Our staff have gone through their own journeys in understanding what this vision really means and how it can be achieved. And I was also fortunate to have the support of a very progressive and equity-minded Board. They supported and promoted this vision and who we are today from the outset. The diversity of world view, people, cultures and backgrounds is needed at all levels, from the Board to the newest hire. None of the progress we've made at Colorado Health Foundation could have happened without the leadership of a values-and equity-based Board and staff at all levels.
How are you living out your equity commitment at Colorado Health Foundation?
A vision isn't worth anything unless people are committed and working toward it. We've helped our staff learn and explore history and how inequity takes shape, and everyone is on their own journey in understanding the complexities behind inequity.
Even with a committed staff and the support of the Board, it is hard to sustain consistent behavior that leads to lasting change. Healing and transformation has to start from the inside. We have to be willing to examine our own unconscious biases and how embedded that is into our human design. We have to be willing to discuss the undiscussable and explore the "why" behind the world we've created. And, once people see how biases and the "isms' of our world contribute to how society, systems and people perpetuate inequity, they can't not see it. It is clear and then it can be addressed.
We have a responsibility as a philanthropy committed to equity to give back and make a difference in the lives of those who are oppressed and struggle every day. The Coloradans we serve are huge assets to their families and communities. Their stories and experiences are not known, and they should be. We have to help ensure their voices are heard, that their stories become known. We have to invite and give them a place at the table so they can advocate and articulate their own needs, hopes, dreams and goals.
We work and learn with and from communities across the state. We listen at all levels. We know that the folks who live and work in these communities are the experts, not us, about their needs and dreams to be healthy. It takes a different openness and authenticity on our part to bring forth the kernels of understanding that provide the fertile ground for change and major improvement. This approach to listening is absolutely imperative to our work.
Our ability and responsibility to support people on their journey toward health is key in creating a more equitable, thriving and hopeful society. Our work isn't done until all families can say that their children have what they need to live healthy and prosperous lives. I've been able to accomplish things I never dreamed of as a child. Now, I want to h
elp children dream and live their lives to become the dreams that guide them.
We are grateful for people like Karen and other inclusive leaders in our GlobalMindED community who are doing the work to make
Martin Luther King's dream reality.