A Message from the Mary Black Foundation on Health Equity

Kathy Dunleavy, President and CEO, Mary Black Foundation

In 2013, the Mary Black Foundation announced a new strategic plan centered around five core values, one of which was Equity.

In the months we spent formulating our new strategic plan, we began to think about how the term “health equity” has become more common, particularly in the philanthropic world, but that the term lacks a universal definition and isn’t easily understood. Getting our arms around health equity and what it means to our trustees and our staff became extremely important if we were all going to approach our grant making and community work using the same lens. We cannot have a healthier community for all unless we go upstream together and address the many factors that affect health. And to do that, staff and trustees needed a deeper knowledge of what exactly lies upstream.

So, we committed to taking 2017 to provide more education for everybody. We developed an education series based on the social determinants of health:  economic stability, education, social & community context, health & health care, and neighborhood & built environment. We had five 2-hour sessions over a six month period to educate all of us around each issue and how it specifically affects our community.  Our trustees were so pleased with the agenda for these sessions they suggested we open it up to some of our community and grantee partners.  To date, we have had 25+ attendees for each session.

The goal for each of these sessions is to engage participants directly in tackling issues related to equity. For example, during our session on economic stability we conducted a poverty simulation – each trustee and staff member were given an identity and asked to walk in the shoes of this person while navigating through the many challenges and systems often encountered by those living in poverty. It became clear to all of us that the struggle to survive, let alone thrive, is monumental for people with economic stability. And that’s a problem that affects 51,000 residents in our county. For the social & community session, we visited the Child Trauma Center at University of South Carolina Upstate to learn about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and significant effects of childhood trauma that can affect a person’s health and lifespan. We also went to two schools in a high poverty area of the community to learn about the barriers some children have in learning. We also have plans to go to the ER at the hospital to talk about access to care and to the Housing Authority to talk about affordable housing and the built environment.

Our hope is that this “deeper dive” allows all of us – staff, trustees, and partners – to look through the health equity lens and ask more questions about how we do our work to ensure health for all. In the fall, when we have our board retreat, I look forward to a robust discussion about health equity, what we’ve learned, and how we design our work moving forward.

We think there are a variety of ways to integrate health equity into a foundation’s work and know of several colleagues who have taken a different approach. One example is the Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, which is working with 18 community partners to design a health equity agenda. We plan to visit them this summer to observe.  We see what we are doing at Mary Black Foundation is a preliminary step in providing a common understanding and knowledge base and look forward to a discussion with other foundations/organizations to hear about their approaches. We can all learn from each other and we believe that sharing best practices with each other about health equity can only make our communities, and the state as a whole, stronger.