Childhood experiences can leave an indelible mark in our subconscious. For some, they also create a trajectory for addressing health inequities in our communities. With strong support, these experiences can ignite the passion and commitment to return to one’s home and provide the leadership needed to address these important issues. My catalyzing experience was the result of living through the height of the heroin crisis in New York City during the late 1960s and early 1970s that ravaged the lives of families, leaving many young African-American youth either severely addicted or, in far too many cases, dead way before their time. Community organizing and advocacy became strategies I used to address many of the social justice issues that plagued my community, eventually leading me to pursue a career in social justice for the provision of human services.
For Vanessa Briggs, Managing Director of the Public Health Management Corporation and Executive Director of Health Promotion Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania, growing up in Southwest Philadelphia exposed her to health disparities and inequities for many in her family and community. Most indelibly, those were of elderly, end-of-life stage African Americans suffering from a variety of chronic diseases and conditions. Always curious, and driven by her passion of “good health for all,” she strove to understand the correlation between health outcomes, nutrition and social determinants of health. With the aim of making a positive societal impact, Vanessa became a registered dietician. Yet she quickly surmised that, while a focus on individual behavior change would move the needle forward, it wasn’t fast enough to impact population health. Her subsequent Masters in Business Administration opened the door to manage broad-scale policy and systems change initiatives.
Highly credentialed, Vanessa could have chosen a corporate path. Driven by her earlier experiences, however, she choose to concentrate on serving the most vulnerable. Over the next 13 years, assuming progressively higher leadership positions, she engaged multiple voices and systems to improve the health and welfare of adults and children throughout Philadelphia and, in some cases, seven counties in Pennsylvania.
Marian Anderson, an African-American contralto and one of the most celebrated singers of the twentieth century, was quoted as saying “Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it.” With Vanessa’s leadership and guidance, her organization and partners applied for a Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) grant. Vanessa said it was “an opportunity to work side by side with community residents as well as with professionals.” She knew that broad-scale policy and systems change would require partnership, collaboration and consensus from both ends of the spectrum. HKHC partners worked to create standards for healthy eating and physical activity for children participating in Out of School Time (OST) programs in Philadelphia.
When I asked Vanessa about her leadership style, she assumed little credit. “You can’t lead from the bottom or from the top,” she said, “but rather, you have to lead from the middle.” This philosophy is well aligned with the thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King who said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.” Vanessa’s leadership and passion for social justice from a health equity lens helped to engage stakeholders including parents, youth, community residents, government and elected officials, and public and private afterschool providers. As a result, healthy living standards were adopted by the city in 2013, impacting the lives of more than 120,000 students participating in OST programming, a major and significant accomplishment for Philadelphia’s children.
We are all shaped by our experiences. The ability to tap into our passion can be a driving force for creating community-led change. The ability to create healthy kids and healthy communities is dependent on the kind of leadership so adeptly displayed under Vanessa’s fortitude and commitment to the community. I am personally glad she embraced that passion and returned to work in her community.