In July, Center for Health Progress’ team began a 12-week intensive period, building our base of leaders for our 2023 campaigns. This process includes one-to-one conversations designed to identify a person’s stake in transforming our health care system. These conversations often uncover a desire to work collectively to build power for the communities we envision. They require us to dig deep into the person’s life experiences, values, frustrations, and hopes, and to share about our own life story as well.
I was admittedly apprehensive about engaging in such vulnerable conversations with people in our communities.
While I have a deep, personal connection to the work because of these experiences, I'd spent most of my life trying to embody “professionalism”–an ideal that I now see as largely based on white supremacy. If you’ve never sat in a meeting full of public policy nerds like myself, I’ll fill you in: these spaces are rarely this personal. By trying to compartmentalize the unpolished parts of myself, I found that I was performing a version of myself for most people. Relationships are built on vulnerability and trust. When I was stuck in performative mode, I couldn’t actually connect with people because I wasn’t allowing people to really see me and get to know me. I’d regularly leave social interactions feeling drained and more alone.
My lived experience
I speak regularly about needing to build community power to advance policy change, yet I was secretly afraid to connect with people. The pain of hiding my true self felt easier to manage than the unknown discomfort of being myself and having people not like me.
Over the past year, since we started having relational one-to-one conversations with people, I had come up with many excuses for why it didn’t make sense for me, as a policy staff person, to do one-to-ones. When you work to uncover self-interest, one of the most important discoveries is understanding what you lose if you continue to let fears or internalized beliefs hold you back from your own power.
I am a Black woman, the child of a single, teen mother. I know first-hand what it's like to be discounted, dismissed, and pushed to the margins. Without public benefits like the Head Start program, Section 8 Housing, and free/reduced price lunch, I probably wouldn't be where I am today. I grew up hearing my family share frustrations about these programs, and they often suggested ways they could be more responsive to community needs. These experiences not only shaped my educational and professional pursuits; they continue to push me to advocate for a different approach to policy change–one that is driven by and accountable to those who are most impacted by inequities.
From fear to liberation
In order to get out of my own way, I had to accept one of the hardest truths for me to face. If we are to actually realize the future I envision, where the health care system values people over profit, I can’t do it alone.
As members of our team helped me recognize the fears holding me back, I began to uncover the ways that I would benefit from spaces where I could be my full, authentic self. What started out as a terrifying idea was suddenly pretty liberating.
As I've met with people across the state, I have been able to reconnect with my own humanity. I've been able to share parts of myself and my story that I'd kept hidden for fear of not being seen as professional enough.
I am eternally grateful to work at an organization that challenges staff and grassroots leaders to lean into our discomfort, to take risks, and to speak openly about our fears. I could not grow into my full potential as a leader without pushing myself to break out of my professional box.
When I push for authentic community engagement in policy efforts, I'm regularly told that it's too hard to find people, that it takes too much work, and that people don't actually want to be part of the process.
Lately, I’ve been asking myself whether these responses are driven by fears… fear of giving up power, fear of doing harm to people across race and class, fear of being vulnerable ourselves. As I’m leaning into my own fears, I’m encouraging other people, particularly my fellow policy nerds, to join me. It’s truly a liberating journey for us all.