Alex Quinn on Racial Health Equity and COVID-19

by Victoria Jones

Posted November 12, 2020

In this month’s At the Helm, Victoria Jones spoke with Alex Quinn, CEO at Health Leads.  Health Leads is a national organization and an innovation hub that seeks to unearth and address the deep societal roots of racial inequity that impact our health.

Alex shared her thoughts on being an impactful leader, embracing innovation, and her greatest concerns and hopes regarding the pandemic.

Victoria: You’ve held some very important leadership roles over the years, some at a very young age – at Health Leads now and at PeerForward (formerly College Summit), and the US Dept. of Justice before that.  What is your great achievement as a leader?

Alex: I’m most proud of helping grow and empower other leaders over time. Early on in my career, I benefited from many impressive individuals who taught me how to double down as an emerging leader. In turn, I learned how to invest in the people around me – through coaching, managing and peer-to-peer support. Now, I get to see those I’ve invested in lead their own teams and organizations. It’s extremely inspiring.

In these experiences, what did you learn that had the biggest impact on your own leadership?

Being taught how self-awareness is the difference maker. And you can’t do it on your own. To be a good leader, you have to recognize your own strengths and shortcomings and gracefully ask for and accept feedback. I started managing people when I was 23, and by the time I was 27 I oversaw 8 teams as a Vice President of Programs at Peer Forward. While I had the intellectual ability to lead in that role, I really didn’t yet have the years of experience that I needed.  I turned to coaches and leaders I respected to help close that gap. So, I try to instill this in young leaders, too. Seeking feedback and responding to it is critically important.

Another important element is understanding the intersection of your passions and your skills. Earlier on in your career, you try out many different roles and responsibilities. Use that time to identify what truly excites you and where your natural talents lie. And for those necessary tasks that you’re not good at, surround yourself with people who are!

Lastly, I think it’s been important to just be present as much as I can. When my staff are having a hard timeour work is challenging on multiple levelsI want them to feel like they can come to me. I can listen, we can talk it out, and I can help them work through the issue (or help them figure out who can help them) or just listen – not as a therapist, but as a manager and colleague that cares.

I love what you just said about identifying where your passion and talents intersect. I’m curious – how were you able to do that yourself? You’ve had such an interesting set of career experiences and options.

I am, in my heart of hearts, just an off-track pre-med student! That was always the plan until I took a year off from school to do an internship at the White House. That’s where I first realized that if I became a doctor, by the time I saw patients, they would have already experienced and been harmed by broken systems. My time at the White House and then at the Department of Justice instilled in me a desire to try to understand and support the policy, processes and people that could repair broken systems. And that desire has driven my career path. We have so many broken systems in the U.S.

Another driving factor has been my interest in racial equity. I still remember doing a 7th grade term paper on Langston Hughes, and how struck I was by the last sentence in his poem “I, Too”: “They’ll see how beautiful I am/ And be ashamed—/ I, too, am America.” I remember finally getting my head around, with that sentence, my own white privilege in a way I hadn’t grasped before. From that moment on, I wanted to better understand racial equity. As a white person you can try to understand racial equity through education and your friends, since you have the privilege not to experience constant racial inequities. It was my focus while in undergrad and for my master’s, as well. And as I learned more about the power of systems (to both do harm and good), coupled with my time at the White House, I grew more interested in opportunities to ‘get ahead’ of equity issues, to change the underlying systems and behaviors that caused inequities. Self-awareness also plays a role here – I learned you have to vigilantly manage and recognize your own power, bias and racism that contribute to systemic inequities. Access to education is one equity lever and that led me to PeerForward. I was really energized by the opportunity to grow the organization, and we were at the intersection of creating systems change, and developing and investing in people, particularly young people. In a lot of ways, it was the right fit for me. But ultimately, I wanted to work in health. When I had the chance to join Health Leads, it felt like the perfect opportunity to pursue all of my passions and learn a lot too.

12 years later, what has kept you at Health Leads?

One of the things I’ve always loved about Health Leads is that we’re an innovation hub. I’ve never been interested in things continuing to function as they currently are. Once systems and processes work well, then whoever is responsible for them can sustain them. I’m interested in improvement. And more importantly, I’m interested in building on and investing in the existing assets of a community to achieve that improvement. Throughout my career, I’ve seen that we too often look at communities through a deficit-based. I think a lot about how can we “cede” with a “c” and “seed” with an “s” power in people and communities, particularly BIPOC communities? Recognizing the assets within communities, and investing in and listening to them – to me, that’s just the best job ever.

A good example of this is when I first took on the role of CEO, members of our senior leadership team and I conducted a series of interviews with patients, partners, and funders. We asked them, “If you could pull Health Leads up by the roots and replant us, what would you do?” At that point in time, we had already been very successful with partnering with healthcare organizations. If we really wanted health, well-being and dignity for every person in every community as our new vision reads, we needed to go beyond the healthcare system and understand how race and health are inextricably tied. We were truly trying to identify whether we should continue to exist as an organization in our current form, and if yes, what should come next. The answers we heardby asking the individual and community partners themselves, not just healthcare leadersgave us very clear direction. We needed to take our learning and understanding of healthcare and broaden who we partner with to better enable access to resources (such as food, housing, mental health services) across communities, not just at the point of care. We needed to help healthcare and community members share decisions, data and power to enable health equity.

So then we had a whole new challenge. What does successfully partnering with communities, healthcare and public health look like? What does power sharing between healthcare and communities look like? There are examples of this across the country but not nearly enough of them. What’s the design, the workforce, the analytics, etc.? It felt like we had conquered one mountain by being part of the movement that enabled healthcare delivery systems to address social determinants of health. Now we were willingly at the base of an entirely new one – and it was and is exciting. It’s this continual innovation with the end goal of community-driven systems change that keeps me engaged and motivated.

I’m going to shift gears a bit to discuss the moment we’re in now. It’s an understatement to say we’re all feeling anxious these days. As a leader in the nonprofit space, what are your biggest worries?

Raising money always makes me anxious. When you’re in this niche world of innovation, it takes much more time to get people to truly understand your vision and to want to commit support.

I’m also worried about the mental health of our team. This is a really hard moment we’re living in, and our work has grown significantly since we work at the intersection of healthcare and community. Our staff have only ramped up their efforts as their lives have gotten more complicated. I worry about how we can sustain this pace and maintain good mental health, especially when we likely have at least another year of living with the pandemic. We’re doing what we can to support our team by doing things like offering more time off and helping create comfortable home offices, but it’s still hard.

And lastly, I’d say I’m always thinking about retention. We have amazing staff, and we want to keep them. So, we’re reviewing our structures, promotion policies and professional development opportunities to try to do better. In some ways, retaining can be harder than recruiting with the kind of talent we have on our team.

I want to ask you one final question. When you think ahead to, say, a year past COVID, what do you hope Health Leads will have accomplished in that time?

The strangest thing about working in a health-focused space and living through COVID is that it’s been a moment of real cognitive dissonance. It’s a horrible health crisis we’re facing and racial health inequities have been growing for decades, but at the same time it feels like a much broader audience understands the need for racial health equity in a way that we’ve been pushing at for years. It really feels like an opportunity to make deep, impactful change.

A year past COVID, I hope we can say we really capitalized on that deepened understanding and desire for change. I hope we’re collaborating with communities in new ways, with an increasing number of people who have advanced their understanding of how racism is a public health crisis, and that it’s leading to a different level of impact in improving health for individuals and communities. I hope we’ve expanded our partnerships and are seeing even greater support. Essentially, I hope we’ve seized this once in a lifetime moment to create lasting change.

Every month, Development Guild leadership spends time with leaders from across the nonprofit sector to hear their perspectives, what’s on their minds today, and what they believe the future holds. Read more At the Helm interviews.