Six insights from listening to health advocates' stories

Oct 28, 2019

This October, 18 children’s health advocates and mentors met—some for the first time—to share their story about how each of us had arrived to Mid-Iowa Health Foundation’s HealthConnect Fellowship. As a communications mentor for this project, I listened and took notes. I found it difficult not to record every detail of each person’s unique journey. I love stories!

Beyond each person’s story, I was struck by several themes that emerged from the three-hour conversation. Here are my six takeaways.

1. There are a lot of children’s health advocates in this community!

While an advocate might feel as though they are working in isolation on issues, such as safer streets, maternal well-being, or mental health care, the issues overlap with other advocates and are all working toward children living healthier lives. The 18 fellows are only a fraction of all advocates working in their own ways to improve children and family well-being. But just getting a handful of people together in one room was a refreshing reminder that we can be a collective force for change.

2. Health advocates play different roles.

One fellow described herself as a dot connector, finding ways to bridge the gap between people on the ground implementing services and those who are making decisions about how they do the work. Another fellow described herself as a barrier breaker, wanting to do more than provide direct services to help individuals in the moment; she wanted to address the tremendous hurdles that led those individuals to needing services in the first place. Another described being that “in between” person who wasn’t a visionary or focused on the details, but instead, someone who could bring everyone to the table to decide how to move forward strategically together.

3. We arrived at system-change work by asking why.

Many fellows described being in a role or a situation and pausing to ask: Why are things this way and why couldn’t they be different. Some worked in child care or in social work, or at a corporation or in the military, and at some point, they recognized that the problems they were trying to solve for some individuals were problems that impacted many and that staying focused on reacting to those problems right in front of them would never be enough. They had to move farther upstream to prevent those problems in the first place.

4. Being a child health advocate means dreaming big.

The HealthConnect Fellowship provided an opportunity to talk about very real challenges people in our community are experiencing and how the structure in place can shut people out or have negative outcomes. While the hurdles seem tremendous, the spirit in the room was optimistic: What if we could band together and make a collective ask for policy change? What if we could create the space for more voices to be genuinely heard?

5. Stories inspire us.

Many fellows brought up a deeply personal experience growing up within their families or interacting with individuals in their work that made them question why they were doing things a certain way. These stories inspired many of us on our journey to become advocates. They also reminded me of why we do the work we do. Although system change is looking at broader impact for many individuals, the work is still about individuals at its heart.

6. Investment in advocates is investment in human capital.

In the nonprofit space, we’re often fighting for funding to implement specific programs with well-defined outcomes. The HealthConnect Fellowship is funding people to lead system change. One fellow called it “human capital building” and I loved the term. Because if we actually want to address big problems, then we have to invest in people to grow their skills, innovate, build connections, and carry out that difficult work every day.

I see all these themes as the starting point for deeper connection as we work together to improve children’s well-being. The experience confirmed that storytelling must remain an important part of how we connect and build relationships for greater work in the future.

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