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Notes from the Journey

This article was originally published as part of Grantmakers In Health’s Views from the Field series.

In the weeks since the 2023 Grantmakers In Health conference in Minneapolis, where we gathered as a community of grantmakers seeking to advance health equity, I have been reminded often of the inspiring and encouraging conversations we had by an envelope of Post-It Notes sitting on my desk. These notes make me smile. They make me feel connected. And their messages motivate me to continue the journey from health to health equity for the long haul.

These Post-It Notes were created during a conference learning lab, The Journey from Health to Health Equity: Moving from Words to Action, that I had the honor to moderate. During the session, nearly 100 colleagues from the field joined together to acknowledge the proliferation of well-crafted statements from foundations publicly committing to health equity in the wake of the past few years of racial reckoning. Together, we discussed how words are not enough—and the reality that we are each on a distinct path in our journeys toward bringing those words into action.

With the expertise and knowledge of incredible funders that are walking the walk, we had a transparent, vulnerable, and honest sharing about each foundation’s challenges, learnings, and experiences with the transition to health equity.

Dr. Laura Gerald, President of Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, Dr. Vanessa Walker Harris, Vice Chair of the Board at Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, and Susan Shumaker, President of Cone Health Foundation provoked our thinking by giving real examples of how philanthropy can critically examine our role as grantmakers, influencers, and conveners as well as our staffing, operations, and communications practices.

Dr. Laura Gerald reminded the group of the importance of looking at the historical role our foundations have played in the inequities that exist today and telling the truth about it as part of the process of change and setting the foundation for trust. She also reminded participants of the importance of taking action to address funding and operations, so we don’t perpetuate structural inequities. As Laura stated, “If you’re not intentional about what it is you’re trying to accomplish, you will do more harm and leave people worse off than when you started.”

Dr. Vanessa Walker Harris noted the importance of going outside oneself to have the hard discussions. She described how their foundation board engaged an external facilitator to help the board members engage in challenging and necessary conversations, “We discussed what our biases were, we talked to community leaders and other nonprofits doing racial equity work and other foundations, and we had these difficult conversations.”

Susan Shumaker described the importance of leveraging foundation investment portfolios as an important, and often overlooked, domain for advancing equitable practices. She also reminded participants of the necessity of learning and moving forward even when the path is not clear. As Susan shared, “We learned that perfect was the enemy of good and you need to start somewhere.”

With this encouragement, participants began conversations with other session attendees—first the community at their table and then the community of the room—surfacing challenges, concerns, learnings, and wins. As the expertise emerged from the room, so did some key ideas and inspiration for the journey:

  • Be bold, brave, and comfortable with being uncomfortable. This means becoming more content with not knowing everything and accepting that you can do the work without having every answer while being vulnerable and embracing discomfort.
  • Keep learning. The education process is never ending, and attendees shared resources like the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation framework and the Equity Footprint, books like Evicted, and articles like “The Illusion of Inclusive Workspaces” to continue learning and advancing this work.
  • Embrace community. This means requiring meaningful community engagement with real decision-making power in funding opportunities, evaluating who is missing from the health equity conversations in our communities, and transitioning from community centered to community led.
  • Bring others in the organization along for the journey. Educating and bringing board members into the process and holding leadership accountable for the commitments made to the community are critical to adoption and success.
  • Find and grow the joy in this work. This joyfulness is critical to ensure endurance and longevity as we all commit to doing this work for the long haul.

Over the course of two hours, the speakers and the session participants collectively saw that we are all the experts, and we are all the learners. We saw the power and commitment of our community to be changemakers. And we saw that we all have a role in moving our field, our organizations, and our communities forward.

There was excitement and energy in the room, and there were Post-It Notes. As we were preparing to finish the session, everyone in the room grabbed a pen and a notepad to scribe their commitments for what they would do after they left the room. There were commitments to read, to speak, and to take action. If you want to see all the commitments, or find yours, a summary of them is linked here. And if you want to see mine, it is below:

This article is my effort to stay true to my commitment. For others, how are your commitments advancing?

With gratitude and appreciation, I send you this note from the journey. Together we can go further in this journey. As a community, we can encourage each other, learn from each other, and truly make change. I look forward to staying connected to this powerful community and our commitment to continue to move our words to action.