| Q&A with Suk Rhee, Director of Operations, NW Health Foundation
What is the primary aim of the Northwest Health Foundation?
At NWHF, when we talk about health, we don’t simply refer to the absence of disease or infirmity. We use the World Health Organization definition of health to refer to complete social, emotional, and economic well-being. We’re talking about health being an indicator of how our community is doing and thriving in society. We look beyond the traditional view of health that happens within the medical system. We look at those things that have a bigger impact on a community’s health: what’s going on economically, socially, and even politically.
Our primary aim is supporting, advancing and promoting the health of all populations here in Oregon and southwest Washington. Where we have partnerships with national organizations, we work beyond this region.
In my role as Director of Operations, I make sure the strategic planning gets done and make sure that our all our efforts are aligned with the plan. We want to make sure that we are maximizing our resources to make the impact that we want to have in the community. I also oversee the grants management process and the administrative support for our programs.
We used to be a typical health founder. We’re 11 years old now – and in our first eight years, we funded health clinics, services and great ideas that community had. We were a responsive grant-maker. That was a great role for us for many years, and continues to be a great role for many funders. But after a while, we looked back at our impact to see what our funding decisions have made on people’s health. Have we increased health outcomes? Have we decreased health disparities? Have we increased access to the services people need?
We realized that we really weren’t making the impact that we wanted to see in the world. That’s when we changed our focus. We went through a strategic planning process, where we determined how we can more effectively influence the health of the entire region.
We went from being a general responsive grant-maker, and now we focus on three major areas. One is health care reform: making sure there is a floor for everyone, that there’s access to basic coverage of essential services for health. The other focus area is public health. This doesn’t only include the public health system run by the government, but also all of the choices that society makes to ensure healthy communities. This is also where our work in social determinants of health lies. The last focus area is that we need a competent and qualified workforce to meet our health needs.
What was your career path leading up to your current post?
I went to college in Ohio, and after college, I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was working for a grief intervention program. I started volunteering with a statewide group, the Southwest Organizing Project -- they organized people for social change. I became aware of this training opportunity for organizers through The Center for Third World Organizing, based in the Bay Area. I attended a summer program called the “Minority Activist Apprenticeship Program,” where I received training to be a direct-action, grassroots community organizer. When I graduated from MAAP, I worked for the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice.
I was an organizer for four years, and I started thinking “No one’s going to hire me for anything else after this.” I didn’t realize at the time how useful community organizing is for all aspects of society. I was pleasantly surprised that people recognized transferable skills from community organizing to more mainstream organizations. I had the opportunity to try different things, during moves to Utah, then to Los Angeles before moving to Portland. I worked for community health centers, as a consultant for fund development, and for an affordable housing developer.
I’ve always worked in the nonprofit sector. There are lots of talented people in business and government, but the nonprofit sector has always appealed to me. It’s a different type of social entrepreneur who works in nonprofits. Most are not motivated by the bottom line – although you still have to deal with it. It’s a different type of energy and role that you’re playing in society.
Why did you decide to embark on work that focuses on social change?
Our family immigrated to the United States in 1973; we landed in North Carolina. We had an unfortunate family tragedy: my father died shortly after we got here. My Mom, who knew very little English and had no money, had to raise three kids in a new country.
I think that growing up in those circumstances opened my eyes to social injustice that exists everywhere. You’re shaped by your upbringing, your community and your environment. I don’t think it was a choice—I was naturally attracted to trying to help out.
It started out with helping my Mother, in a very personal sense. As you get older, helping your Mother becomes helping someone else’s mother, helping someone’s family. You realize that you can’t help every family that needs help—that systems need to change to help all of us.
What were some of the most important lessons you learned along the way?
Community organizing has really shaped everything I do. I learned that you should not ask someone to do something you’re not willing to do yourself, and not to do for others what they can do for themselves. Don’t ask people to put themselves in positions you wouldn’t put yourself in. In the same way, don’t take away opportunities for them to imagine themselves in new roles, particularly as leaders.
People need to speak for themselves – you can’t speak for others. At the end of the day, a lot of our struggles are struggles for self-determination. That’s a very human, universal condition. Social justice should be readily understood by people, because everybody should be self-determining to the extent that they can.
How does your cultural background impact the way you lead?
I’m Korean. Maybe this is true for other people with my cultural background—there’s a respect for elders, respect for community. There’s a willingness to put individual needs second to community needs. That’s true for a lot of cultures, a little bit different than mainstream American culture. Because in mainstream U.S. culture, we’re always taught to put yourself first and that’s how you get ahead and succeed.
I think actually, my family culture has been more significant in influencing the way I work. My Mom was not a very “traditional” Korean. My mother took risks, went against the grain. She never conformed to the stereotypical expectations for her gender, her generation or her role as a mother.
In your current work, how does your work impact communities of color in the region?
We’re not the biggest funder, but we want to be a great partner for all the communities that live here. When we say all communities, we recognize that our communities are more diverse – and more rich in that diversity – than most people want to admit.
Especially in the last couple of years, we’ve been making more intentional efforts to reach out to the communities most impacted by injustice in our systems. These are communities of color, immigrant communities, rural communities, and other communities of identity such as disability and sexual orientation. When those communities are fully able to participate in health care reform, public health and the workforce, then the health of all communities will be uplifted. We still have a lot of work to do.
What were some of the things important in doing the outreach?
We try to meet people before there’s a proposal on the table. Getting an understanding of what the community needs is important. When there’s an issue on the table – there’s already so much at stake. Sometimes that’s not the best way to have an honest conversation.
It’s also important that communities demand that of us, and hold us accountable in many ways. One example that has been very productive is the Coalition of Communities of Color, which has invited us to partner with them, to get to know their member organizations. Because I live in community, I identify with certain communities, and I’ve worked in organizing and nonprofits…I don’t think communities have to only wait for funders to reach out.
Community partners are what make foundations great. It’s the community that has more power and strength in this relationship. It’s wonderful when they demand our attention, and want to work in partnership. We’re always trying to be more attentive and make ourselves available for those types of invitations.
What programs funded by the NWHF are you most proud?
One of the most interesting areas in our public health work is addressing social determinants of health. Many of our partners in communities of color are attracted to the framework.
Communities that have fought for self-determination have always known about social determinants of health. We’re catching up to them. We now have a framework where we can meet communities where they are. For example, communities of color know that racism kills. They know that housing, education and income have everything to do with their ability to maintain their health. Even when you have a strong community within your identity group, if that community is isolated from the mainstream that will impact your health. We’re pleased to honor the work that communities of color are doing today. These groups have also been very “upstream” – the work they’re doing has impact on people today, but also their children and later generations.
We also did a series of small grants to get organizations that don’t traditionally consider themselves health reform groups to be involved in the legislative session last year, to push for the passage of equitable health care reform. We made 16 small grants to local organizations like Oregon Action, Urban League, APANO, and the Tree Institute. The response has been really wonderful. Groups have always been aware of the reform issues, and this has allowed them to participate in a very specific and coordinated way. The grantees also organized themselves to work in a broader coalition around this work. It wasn’t a lot of money, but what resulted was very purposeful coalition-building.
Some of our small-grants work is very exciting because that’s an entry point for folks we’ve never worked with before. One project under our public health work is Community Health Priorities, where we’ve been sponsoring conversations. For example, VOZ, the day laborer rights group, has been using the “Unnatural Causes” documentary series to have a conversation about social determinants of health. The goal is to have those conversations within their communities, and have conversation lead to action.
Many years ago, the foundation led an initiative to address the nursing shortage in Oregon. That initiative was so successful in many ways. Not only did they transform the way nursing education is delivered within the state, but the process itself was held up as a model about how change can happen within a region. Since then, that model is what attracted Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to partner with NWHF on a program called Partners Investing in Nursing Future, which developed a leadership model that can be replicated across the country. This national program funds other funders to take on the workforce shortage in their area. It also provides matching dollars and technical assistance, as well as a community of support.
What do you see as the most challenging aspect of your work?
Being in a funding institution, you’re maybe one or two steps removed from what’s really going on. Foundations play a specific and unique role in our society, and sometimes people are not 100 percent honest with us. Maybe they think we can’t handle the truth, or we want to hear certain things. This is where our community partners can really help us. If we constantly hear that we’re doing a great job, or we’re funding great things, but we’re not told where can improve, and what more we need to do – then how are we going to improve?
What do you enjoy most about the work you do every day?
We’re so lucky that we get to learn about so many great community organizations. It’s wonderful that we’re asked to get to know the community on a daily basis. I feel like I’m just starting to get to know all the magnificent people and organizations in the region. The more we know what’s going on, the better we can be at helping support those efforts. We feel that we have come a long way as an institution, but we feel that we still have a long way to go.
Spring 2010 Colors of Influence