Community Engagement, Systems Change

Leadership Insights: Centering Community Engagement in Our Work

by Ky Lindberg, Vice President of Community Engagement

For as long as I can remember, three things have reigned true in my life:  

  1. When in doubt, choose joy.  
  1. Be humble and inquisitive because there is so much that I don’t know or understand.  
  1. Miraculous things can happen when we do things together. 
Me, age three months, with my mother, Valeza, “Lisa”

These core truths that I developed were constantly validated by the many experiences that I have had since childhood.  When I was growing up, I didn’t realize how truly difficult it was for our family. I thought it was normal to sometimes have to borrow buckets of water from a neighbor so that I could bathe, get boxes of food from the “Action Jackson House,” and have a kerosene heater warm your home instead of a furnace. Some of my neighbors had nicer clothes and houses but aside from kids making the occasional distasteful remark, no one ever made me feel less than because I was poor.  I was “Lisa and Frank’s child,” and people knew the struggles of my parents and chose to support our family through those tough times and to connect us to resources that I will be forever grateful for.  

Fast forward several years and I have been humbled to engage with people who, like me, have beautifully complex intersectional identities that were forged from a life of experiences that reaffirmed my three core beliefs.  No matter a person’s race, income, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or other intersectional identity, I observed a common thirst for connection, understanding and shared solutioning. It is because of this I come to Georgia Health Initiative with a recognition that the only way our community can achieve their fullest potential for health is if we rally ALL our joy, passion, ingenuity, talents, and resources to build health equity in systems that currently often inhibit them. 

Our organization’s community engagement philosophy is steeped in humility and guided by the wisdom of our partners.  As a non-profit private foundation, we understand the potential power imbalances that can exist when funders, albeit well-intentioned, partner with our community to solve complex social issues. Given that, we have taken care to ask questions to our partners and listen to the invaluable feedback they offer.  We’ve heard that, at times, funders have used their investments as a way to assert their own solutions for communities which seeds mistrust, undermines the knowledge of our fellow community members, and can cause unintended yet potentially irreparable harm.  Additionally, our partners have shared that they have felt underestimated and undervalued when institutions come in to “help.”  They’ve expressed a norm of funders and institutional leaders to include “the community” as an afterthought and often discount the dynamic work that has already been happening.  

As we continue to walk in partnership with our fellow Georgians in our pursuit of fostering health equity, we must do so earning trust, listening actively, being in fellowship often, honoring our past, and being additive to an extraordinarily complex landscape. This is why Georgia Health Initiative centers community engagement as foundational to our overall organizational approach. Our organization has an unwavering dedication to being positive change agents for Georgia. We each are deeply connected to the very communities we wish to engage with and have lived experiences that shape the way we show up in the world and how people respond. As we enact change, we are committed to a culture where we focus on our goals and leverage all the time, talent, and treasures we share to realize them. With an active commitment to systems change, we are in this for as long as it takes.  We will allow for the pace, often slow, for positive change to manifest.  Our goal is to take care in celebrating, yet not becoming complacent because of incremental wins. We know how challenging social change can be. No one of us has all the answers and we certainly can’t do it alone, yet each of us has a meaningful contribution to offer towards realizing our shared vision of a Georgia that works for everyone.