A fellow's perspective: Getting to do the work we should be doing

A fellow's perspective: Getting to do the work we should be doing

By Andrea Dencklau

These remarks were shared at Mid-Iowa Health Foundation’s HealthConnect Fellowship Launch Celebration on November 18, 2019. Andrea participated in the first cohort of the HealthConnect Fellowship and will continue her fellowship through April 2021. 

I am honored to be a part of this amazing group of fellows and I am so grateful for the opportunity to be share my perspective about the HealthConnect Fellowship.  

I’ve taken many different paths in my career, working in homelessness, child abuse prevention, and most recently, with young people aging out of foster care. Even in the best situations, true systems change always felt out of reach.  So, when I was invited to participate in this fellowship, I was very excited. I’m not tied to any arbitrary measure—except that I will influence and change systems to make them better for children.  I’ve been allowed to determine what that should look like, what resources I need to make it happen, and how it should be done. 

Do you know how liberating that feels? I get to do the work we know we should be doing!

The fellowship encouraged me to trust my instincts. To listen to young people and community members and allow them to lead me where they want and need to go—and that has solidified my focus and purpose.  Whether we are talking about homelessness, mental health, academic success, all I hear are the voices of young people describing feeling alone in the world, rejected, ignored, or called “damaged.” 

How can we ask them to become self-sufficient adults when they lack this foundational need for belonging?  

We develop in the context of human connections. When you feel like no one cares about you, it’s difficult to care about yourself. My campaign message is simple: Do everything you can to support strong, stable, and nurturing connections between children, youth, and people who love them. 

The fellowship offers a new, and I think, brave approach to philanthropy. 

While it might always be necessary for philanthropy to provide services and supports to meet basic needs, we have to acknowledge that if we do only that, people will continue to suffer, and we will never be done. We must change the conditions that create social problems in the first place. And that means holding decision makers, and the business sector accountable—and we need bold, well-supported people to do that. It also means that as advocates, we must be accountable to listening to and partnering with people impacted most by inhumane policies and practices—we cannot create effective systems without this partnership. We have to do the hard work removing barriers—not just layering on new programs and services.  

I don’t think anyone knew how this fellowship would turn out. And we will continue to learn as we move into the next phase. But so far, I think we’ve learned that it works! 

While we’ve all had some success in our campaigns, the lasting success of the fellows lies in the support and understanding we have offered to one another, the connections made between each other and our networks, and our own increased sense of belonging to this “team” of wonderful human beings. Some of us had been thirsty for this comradery and supportive space to think big and strategize about how to improve our work and make significant lasting change for children and youth.

Early in the fellowship, we realized this experience is unique, but it needed to persist. 

We’ve all grown from it. For me it was confidence that I could do hard things—like speak to all the juvenile court judges—which, for the record, is terrifying—but I survived. We wanted more people to have the opportunity to feel the support, learn from each other, and do real systems change. We also wanted more accomplices. The reality is that we are all connected, and every social issue is connected. Child welfare isn’t just about the child welfare system, it’s about affordable housing, racism, mental health care, prenatal care, the list goes on. We really wanted—needed—more people thinking and moving in the same direction. 

This fellowship gives me hope. 

Advocacy can be slow and exhausting, but I look around the room and it is a collective of change makers. We don’t have to let the enormity of the problems deter us. We can choose to support and challenge each other to do better, and that gets us so much closer to creating a world that invests in, and values, people. 

I want to welcome the new fellows joining us this year. Each of you brings something unique to this experience and I am so excited to learn from you and work alongside you. I know you’ll be bold. 

I’d also like to offer my sincere gratitude to Denise, Suzanne, Rick, and the board of Mid-Iowa Health Foundation. Your investment is a gift to us all, thank you.  

Read more about the launch of the second cohort of HealthConnect Fellows.