Who do we need to be to turn this moment into the future our communities deserve?

A section of a vivid, painted mural showing an outstretched open hand in front of the sun

The Terrance Keenan Leadership Award in Health Philanthropy has been considered a lifetime achievement award, but in presenting it to Blue Shield of California Foundation’s Chief Program Director Carolyn Wang Kong in June 2021, Grantmakers in Health noted that Carolyn still has a lot of lifetime and achievements ahead of her. Her acceptance speech, abridged here, illuminates that promise.

Carolyn Wang KongI came into health philanthropy after almost 20 years of working in health care, in language access. You see, I am a child and grandchild of immigrants. I grew up interpreting for my grandmother during medical appointments, watching the health care system repeatedly fail her.

One day, my grandmother was going in for an outpatient eye surgery to remove a blood clot from behind her eye. She had to be awake and take instruction from the surgeon, like “look left” or “look right.” I was unexpectedly called into the operating room to interpret for her. She was on the operating table, scared out of her mind because no one told her what was going on. I held it together as best as I could, interpreting maybe 30% of what was said. My hands were shaking, I was so angry. They would never have allowed this to happen to an English-speaking family.

I didn’t have words for what I felt that day, but I do now. It was a feeling of marginalization, discrimination, and injustice.

Within 15 years, I would lead language access for Kaiser Permanente Northern California, implementing one-touch video access to a qualified medical interpreter in every inpatient unit, every Emergency Department and, yes, every operating room in each of Kaiser’s 23 hospitals. On my watch, there would be no excuses.

I left a career in health care operations because I wanted to make a bigger contribution. I have to be honest: I don’t know that I knew what I was getting into when I decided philanthropy would be the place to make that contribution. But I knew that I wanted to be of greater service while bringing my values and my communities with me.

And what a time it is to be of service. We have been dealing with a global pandemic, doing the best we can with an under-resourced public health system, and trying to protect communities that have systematically been positioned to bear the brunt of exposure – whether to economic inequity or the COVID-19 virus.

We are witnessing racial uprisings, calls for accountability, and a younger generation unapologetically using their voices to claim their power.

And after years of playing defense, we are staring down a $1.9 trillion* American Rescue Plan that has the potential to lift millions of Americans out of poverty, while pouring resources into housing, transportation, education, and the care sector – all things that drive health.

What would Terrance Keenan say about the role we need to play in this moment? Recently I re-read his piece “The Promise at Hand,” in which he writes about the principles of philanthropic practice. Three things stood out to me:

  • First, that it’s not just the “quality of ideas underlying a proposal, but the quality of the people behind the ideas.” Whose ideas are we listening to today? Who should we be listening to?
  • Second, he writes about the importance of creativity in philanthropic practice and that “creativity is a cultivated skill, attainable only through continuous effort.” Are we continually thinking about how we need to be creative – in the role we play, the function we serve as funders?
  • And third, he writes about one of our favorite topics – risk. He said, “the most important ingredient in the creative practice of philanthropy is the ability to seize an opportunity for impact even when the proposed intervention carries a considerable element of risk.” In this moment, communities have lost so much, particularly communities of color, and yet there could not be more at stake. The risk of doing nothing or not enough is that we will entrench inequities. How might we flip the dialogue on risk to focus on trust, enabling those most impacted to guide us, rather than thinking about them as high-risk investments?

Listening to new people. Being creative about our roles. Reframing risk to focus on trust. How do these ideas serve us as we forge our post-2020 future?

For the answers to these questions in Carolyn Wang Kong’s full speech, including highlights of the Foundation’s grantmaking in the COVID-19 pandemic, watch the full video:

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