Being Bold in This Moment

Being Bold in This Moment

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The year 2020 was a challenging year for our grantee partners and residents in our service region. But, it clarified our sense of purpose since we embarked on our health equity journey in 2017. Read or listen to our President Maria Pesqueira and Board Chair Amalia Rioja reflect on what we learned from partners this past year and how those learnings have informed our deep strategic investments in our region beyond general operating support.

Listen to or read their conversation below.


Amalia, as you know, the year 2020 was a heavy, but pivotal year in our country and our service region. Particularly our Legacy and Equity area included the highest-ranked zip codes in Illinois for COVID-19 infections, mortalities, unemployment, housing insecurity, and lack of health insurance. We, as a foundation, focused on listening, learning from, collaborating with our grantee partners and peer funders across our region. We focused, advocated, lifted community voice, mobilized our response fund, and streamlined our general operating process. And, yet, we know at this moment, it requires more.

So, we turned to our community and sought to understand the immediate and emergent community health and wellness needs to inform our bold, long-term pandemic response and investment strategy. Our partner insights report, “Reimagining Health and Wellness”, summarizes these learnings.

As we think about this, and certainly encouraged by the board to think beyond the 5% threshold to address the current and emergent needs–not just for this cycle, but for the next three years–what was the impetus for the Board to encourage us to be bold as we continue to address COVID-19’s impact in our region?


“We exist as a foundation to help the community. During this crisis, if we don’t step up, then what is our purpose for existing?”


That’s a good question, Maria. So, this whole concept of being bold, that dialogue started with one particular board member who challenged all of us to take a bold approach. Quickly, all the other board members were in support of his vision, which is really that we exist as a foundation to help the community. During this crisis, if we don’t step up, then what is our purpose for existing? This was at a board meeting at the very beginning of the pandemic. 

At that point, we really didn’t know the full scope, the impact of how devastating this would be to the entire world. So, his view was “We need to take a bold approach” and what does that mean? 

That means looking beyond the 5% minimum that the IRS requires for foundations like ours to give out annually. In terms of historical perspective, we’ve always given out more than 5%. But we decided to give out significantly more for the next few years. 

I think that the pandemic set off an alarm for everybody and required all of us to step back and also come together to support each other. We, as a foundation, have an important leadership role for all foundations in how you can internally structure, how you can have a plan to implement a bold approach. So, I think the word “bold” is a great theme for us and how we’re approaching our grant making for the next three years.


I also wanted to just highlight the fact that our board went through a strategic planning process. What I recall from the board–putting together some of the values that are our core principles that include transparency, stewardship, trusted partners, collaboration–keywords that now are seen as bold in this response. I think part of it is because of the time that our Board took, early on, to really dig deep on what it means to achieve health equity. 

I have to say that I am honored, certainly feel a sense of privilege, to be in partnership with a board that values community-driven data, that values transparency, that values the importance of trust-based philanthropy. That’s considered bold, in itself, and to the Board that’s considered just doing well by community.


It’s really a team effort with the board and you and the staff. In my mind, we are in a unique position to make a difference. But in order to move the needle, we need to partner with others–with government, with the city, with the county and with other organizations, other foundations. So, I feel really optimistic that this is a moment of change, of folks reflecting back, doing some introspection and more grounding. 

I think, as an organization, we’ve done that. Whether as an individual or a foundation or any organization, it was a wake-up call for the better. We will come out of this wiser, stronger and certainly more well informed about the disparities, and how we can all make a difference, no matter what your area of expertise is, what your line of work is. I think everybody can pitch in some way to make a difference. 

We’ve seen how the pandemic has impacted Black and Brown communities disproportionately. There are so many statistics on that and they’re alarming. We’ve also seen and know that–we’ve always known–that there were significant disparities, but COVID really exposed them in stark terms for the world to see. Certain communities bore the brunt of not having the opportunities that others have. 



When the pandemic hit, the mortality rates, the lack of housing, and lack of access to health care were all incredible factors that created even now greater disparities. And we know that it will take a long, long time for our communities to recover, unfortunately, so we want to be there and help expedite recovery, help address the needs. And I’m really proud of and excited about this report that the foundation has put together to frame, from the community’s input, what the impact has been, and how we can mobilize and help all communities recover more quickly.


We are still learning. We are still listening to our community partners and what we’ve have come to understand is how important it is to get out of the way. I think that’s being bold, and what we’ve heard, at least from a staff perspective, from our board, as well as from our community, it is: let’s make it possible to be nimble, and to respond. If anything COVID has taught us is the importance of getting out of the way but responding quickly and swiftly. 

What we’re hearing from our communities is the importance of what’s happening within the region, what’s happening with them organizationally, and what are some opportunities for them to think not just short-term, but long-term, and what can we continue. So, our general operating support will allow for them to continue operating. But the nimbleness and the partnership will allow for us to think about what it will take for our communities to recover stronger.

“The social determinants of health are intersected, and we need to be thinking about this for the long-term.”

One of the concerns that I have–where will our organizations be after all this? We saw that philanthropy responded quickly and swiftly to the needs of COVID. But, as we know, the social determinants of health are intersected, and we need to be thinking about this for the long-term. And that’s why I think the Healthy Communities Foundation’s Board’s approach that is not about just immediate, but it’s certainly about looking at this over a three-year period, and beyond. To be there in partnership, to make sure that we recover equitably, is key and important.



Tell us something from the report that really surprised you or you weren’t expecting. I know the report is in depth and covers a lot of different topics.


Well, it became very clear how truly connected the social determinants of health are. Specifically, we heard of the continued growth of mental health concerns. While mental health concerns were present in pre-pandemic days, the mental health aspect was exacerbated in our region. Specifically, we heard of the need for mental health services for youth. Certainly, when we think about youth being isolated, no longer having a classroom environment with peers, and being in virtual classes–it is a highlight to take note of. We also heard from our grantee partners that their staff were very much affected by vicarious trauma. We kept hearing over and over–how do we care for our caretakers? Those that are serving our community, those aspects of mental health–the broad spectrum of mental health–was very clear. 

“To be there in partnership, to make sure that we recover equitably, is key and important.”

We also heard of the crucial role of community health workers in the western suburbs. We know that services are present, that not many times are people connecting to the resources that are there. Now think about if that was happening, pre-pandemic, how does the pandemic impact it at a broader scale? What’s available? Where do they call? Are they in my community? Is it virtual services? Do I go in person? Community health workers were linked to what services are available to them, not just from a health perspective. Again, the social determinants of health became very clear. 

We also saw the strength, creativity, and innovation of organizations in our region. There’s a need, let’s address it–as opposed to, There’s a need-it’s not what we do. There’s a need–how do we connect? Is there something in place already? If not, how do we make it happen? It really came out, and it was beautiful to see.



Maria, so from the insights that we gathered from our partners, can you describe how the foundation under your leadership took that data and insights and applied them to inform our grant making?


We know that listening is important, but what we heard was very much confirming the importance of listening to those that were the hardest hit. If we learned something from this moment in time, it is that it is important to go from the epicenter out. It is important to go into those communities, hear from them, listen to them, but also work with them on addressing the systemic impact that has been in place, that became very clear. 

What we heard and how we are responding is basically by listening to our hardest-hit communities and investing in our hardest-hit communities. It is no surprise that the biggest needs are in these communities. We plan on making our investments from that lens of equity, deep into communities that have been long forgotten in our region.

“It’s going to take a while for us to rebuild a strong infrastructure from the lens of the social determinants of health…We plan to be here in partnership for the long haul.”

But doing so in a matter that is in partnership with our grantee partners, while also learning. We want to be a learning community, encouraging that, yes, sometimes these investments will work, sometimes these investments will not work. As you know, Amalia, as we’ve talked about in the past, philanthropy sometimes comes in and comes right out. We hope to be here in partnership with our grantee partners, partnership with local government–we can’t do it alone. Just like our grantee partners can’t do it alone. 

But we will be stronger when we are partnering and collaborating for the long-term. And it took quite a while to be in the place where we are in communities. What I mean by that–it has taken a while for the systemic inequities to take hold. It’s going to take a while for us to rebuild a strong infrastructure from the lens of the social determinants of health, addressing health inequities, and health disparities in our region. We plan to be here in partnership for the long haul.



What gives you hope for a more equitable recovery for our region, and really for the whole country? What is it that provides you with that hope?


I would say that 2020 has provided us with racial reckoning and addressing the fact that race is at the center, unfortunately, in this country, in our region. And so, what gives me hope is that there has been an awakening and awareness that has been brought on, of all times during a pandemic, to show us that the systems that have been put in place to keep communities back are rooted at the racial inequities. What gives me hope is that people have become aware and willing to address and move that forward.


I absolutely agree with that. That gives me hope as well, the fact that racial injustice, racial inequities is part of the mainstream dialogue now. Whether it’s in the corporate boardroom, or in government at every level–that does give me a lot of hope that people are recognizing it and acknowledging that we all have a  part to play in creating a better world.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 


Absolutely. Well, thank you for this conversation. This has been a time for us to step back and look at where we’ve been and where we are going. Even though we’re thinking about this from, what does it mean to be bold? –it’s a reminder that we are on this journey, a continuous journey to address health equity in our                         region.

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