Grief, Hope, Healing: Esperanza’s Commitment to Racial and Health Equity

Grief, Hope, Healing: Esperanza’s Commitment to Racial and Health Equity

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Esperanza Health Centers VP of Strategy and Business Development Heidi Ortolaza-Alvear shares how Esperanza has continued to care for community through the immense challenges, loss, and grief of the pandemic by leaning into love. Her reflections from participating in the 2020 Facing Race: A National Virtual Conference presented by Race Forward offer an opportunity to recognize how Esperanza has reimagined health and wellness and strengthened their commitment to racial equity these past couple of years.


Esperanza is relentless in its pursuit of racial equity, and, at the same time, we’ve just begun a formal process to institutionalize our commitment to racial equity.

Over the last year, we completed a comprehensive assessment of our organization that engaged nearly 700 patients, more than 100 staff, and additional key stakeholders. Building on the assessment findings, we trained a core group of staff that is now forming as a committee to develop our comprehensive plan and accountability metrics. 


At the 2020 Facing Race conference, Rev. Alvin Herring said something that stuck with me:

“The future belongs to those who can love.”

It was a straightforward but powerful statement. As we do this work, there are inevitable moments of hurt. Moments when intentions and impact don’t quite align, and, hopefully, moments when we’re being courageous enough, to be honest about the biases we hold, the internalized oppression we’re battling, or ways in which we’ve failed.

In those moments, there’s so much power in leaning into love. Love for ourselves and each other.

At Esperanza, our core values are caring, quality, and family. Leaning into our core values and showing up with love has meant being transparent with each other about where we can do better. That includes sharing our full assessment report with all staff and the board. It has meant creating space for challenging conversations and listening to understand. And it has also meant taking the time to build trusting relationships that carry us beyond project deliverables and urgent deadlines.  

Esperanza Health Center Staff holding signs "Peace, Love - Amor, Paz", "You have a voice - Tienes una voz"
Photo credit: Esperanza Health Centers
Esperanza Health Centers - Vaccine Distribution
Photo credit: Esperanza Health Centers


This last year and a half forced us all to grieve racial and health inequity at new depths.

In our community, we grieved the infuriating COVID heatmap that showed Chicago’s Southwest Side in red, an area that saw some of the highest COVID-19 case rates and deaths in our entire state. Our families faced hunger, unemployment, and rental evictions at alarming rates. And we lost loved ones to gun violence, including one of our very own employees.

Yet, through our grief, we locked arms with partners like the Southwest Organizing Project, the Gage Park Latinx Council, and Latinos Progresando, to name a few, and we made way for healing.

While we mourned, we conducted more than 50,000 COVID tests. We provided more than 120,000 COVID vaccines and counting. We’ve distributed food, diapers, and masks. We helped to secure $100K in rental assistance for our patients. And we recently kicked off a staff violence prevention committee to ensure that we’re doing our part to nurture communities free from gun violence.

Our grief has led us to double down on our commitment to putting the community back in community health. The pandemic reminded us that, together, we really can change the color of the map. 

About the Author

Heidi Ortolaza-Alvear, AM, MPP, VP of Strategy and Business Development at Esperanza Health Centers

Heidi Ortolaza-Alvear, AM, MPP

Heidi is Esperanza Health Center’s Vice President of Strategy and Business Development, where she leads key strategic growth initiatives, helps build and maintain Esperanza’s community relationships, and advances Esperanza’s principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Prior to Esperanza, she was the Deputy Director of Strategy and Impact at EverThrive Illinois, where she led the organization in developing strategies to address the root causes of health disparities among women, children, and families in Illinois. Heidi began her career in community health at Erie Family Health Centers, where she provided direct support to pregnant and parenting patients, oversaw a parenting support program, and led quality improvement initiatives across the organization. She received her Master of Arts in Social Work and Master of Public Policy from the University of Chicago and her bachelor’s degree from Carleton College. 

Learn more about our grantee partner Esperanza Health Centers and their important work on Chicago’s Southwest Side. You can also follow them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn where they share community stories and updates.

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