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Advancing Equity in Communities: A Conversation with Kitty Hsu Dana

By Sarah Strunk on April 16th, 2021

Her commitment to health equity was born in New York City, where she emigrated from Taiwan as an eight-year-old, then honed through leadership roles in mission-focused organizations, such as Planned Parenthood of Maryland, the American Public Health Association, American Friends Service Committee, and United Way Worldwide. Today, as a health strategist, dot-connector, and Senior Health Policy Advisor at the National League of Cities, Kitty Hsu Dana works with leaders from cities, towns, and villages in their efforts to advance equity with policies, practices, and programs that give everyone a chance to pursue their dreams. I recently talked with Kitty about her work and hopes for the future.


Kitty Headshot

SS: Kitty, it’s great to talk with you! We first met about 10 years ago, when you were Vice President of Health at United Way Worldwide (UWW). I’m curious…how did that position help pave the way for your current work at the National League of Cities?

KHD: I joined UWW when the entire network was pivoting from traditional fundraising and fund distribution to achieving impact by working in a much more strategic way with community partners. Two things stand out from that time. We had a series of conversations with communities to understand their aspirations and priorities from residents’ perspectives. We really dug deep. One United Way CEO told me he thought he knew his community before those conversations, then learned that he really didn’t – even after living there for 25 years! The other thing that really stands out is the cross-sector collaboration. The community conversations brought partner organizations together in new ways around the community’s goals and helped build trust for deeper collaborations.


One of the projects you’re working on now is NLC’s Cities of Opportunity initiative. What do you hope it will achieve, and what have you been learning?

Cities of Opportunity (CoO) offers an agenda for action to improve health, well-being and opportunity for city residents. City teams developed and implemented robust, integrated action plans for their communities that are informed by peer learning and support from national experts. CoO embraces a framework that’s similar to other healthy communities initiatives – community engagement, strategic use of data, leveraging financing, multi-sector collaboration, and sustainability – all while centering equity. What’s distinct about CoO is that it applies a city-centered, context-specific approach. We’re working with city teams to help them identify priorities that are most important to them and implement a comprehensive approach to changes in specific policies, systems, and/or practices. Some of the participants, like the Cities of Charlotte and Grand Rapids, embedded equity and race throughout their comprehensive plans and strategic plans. Others are pursuing more specific strategies. Atlanta worked on equity and water justice issues and created hyperlocal hiring requirements for innovative green infrastructure projects. Fort Collins focused on expanding child care as precursor to their workforce development goals. NLC offers these leaders a safe space to explore questions, opportunities and challenges; leading to the emergence of the teams’ own solutions.


I’m glad you brought that up! Despite the extraordinary challenges of the past 14 months, we’ve seen cities and their partners come together in some pretty incredible ways. What makes you most hopeful as you think about recovery?

What a year! It certainly was extraordinary by any measure, and of course it’s not over. One thing we learned is that as cities and towns thrive, so do the regions around them and our country as a whole. And cities and towns can’t thrive if residents don’t have equitable access to services. During the pandemic, cities did a great deal to break down barriers that hinder access to city services—simple things like changing parking regulations and putting applications for business licenses on line. Many local governments have literally done the impossible in the past year. They shifted to fully remote work, and creatively partnered to deploy limited resources. For example, the City of Baltimore worked with schools and tapped into its local TV station for remote learning. Duluth set up a scoring process for CARES funding that prioritized historically disadvantaged local small business owners, such as women and entrepreneurs of color. Better recognition of our fragile systems and expanded partnering across sectors to meet people’s needs during the pandemic have renewed commitment to equity and amplified collaboration for sustainable, long-term changes. We now have a broader understanding that a community can’t move ahead if we leave its most vulnerable residents behind.


You’ve been working to advance health equity throughout your career. Can you share more about your longstanding commitment and why it’s important to you? 

I grew up in a very low-income household, and yet we didn’t think of ourselves as poor. We always had a secure place to live and never went hungry. Even as I wanted to work in mission-based organizations since high school, I was well into my 30s before I thought about issues of equity. If it weren’t for a number of circumstances – that one encouraging teacher, or the system that allowed me to get a full scholarship to college – I wouldn’t be where I am. Despite some of the challenges my family faced as immigrants I had many advantages and systems that I benefitted from. At APHA I learned that public health is the marriage of science with the political will to improve lives and advance equity for all people. We need to intentionally address systems that disproportionately disadvantage certain groups.


Thanks for that important reminder, Kitty. I’d like to wrap up with a question that seems to be on everyone’s mind these days. What are you most looking forward to doing when it’s safe to get out and about in the world? 

I hardly lack for human interaction with back-to-back Zoom meetings on work days, but I really miss intimate, in-person gatherings with family and friends. I look forward to getting together in person in indoor and outdoor settings with good food and meaningful conversation.

Sarah Strunk

Strategic Advisor

Healthy communities networker, integrator and distance runner on the go.