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Society, Heal Thyself: 5 Takeaways from Leaders Challenging Unequal System

by Johnny McNulty

On March 28, five leaders driving change across the globe shared how they tackle systemic challenges affecting their communities.

The 2023 Catalyst Fund recipients are all leaders whose personal and professional journeys have brought them the experiences and insights to see through the landscape of today to envision a more just society, as well as the ability and connection to affected communities to put that into action. Whether it is in the practice of medicine in the field, or how health intersects with technology and government, in the vast world of public education, as an architect who builds spaces where people and nature thrive, or by channeling first-hand police violence into a process of community healing and trust-building, these leaders have learned by doing in deep partnership with the communities most affected by inequities.

On March 28, 2023, these five leaders—Kaya Henderson, Dr. Benson Hsu, Adib Dada, Leon Ford and Dr. Ajay Nair—joined Michelle Molitor of The Equity Lab to discuss their experiences and the lessons they’ve learned. They arrived from a wide range of geographies and backgrounds, reflecting the breadth of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, yet their experiences and insights led us to common themes and takeaways on how leaders can best effect change in their communities while also sustaining themselves for the long haul.

Here are five quick takeaways from that conversation:

It takes time to gather the experience needed to find solutions.

One common factor among several of the Catalyst Fund leaders is how they needed to go through a certain number of experiences—from their upbringing to their education to their careers and then being immersed in communities—before they developed both their ideas for ventures and the ability and will to carry it out. For Dr. Nair, it was not just his experience treating vulnerable populations in Mumbai but his subsequent careers in tech that gave him the breadth of experiences to lead an effort that would allow better information sharing among care providers and the wider health sector so that even vulnerable patients and neighborhoods receive the attention and resources they need. Kaya Henderson had direct experience as the Chancellor of DC schools, but it was the pandemic and subsequent assault on education that centers and discusses racism that catalyzed her vision for Reconstruction US. Dr. Hsu served South Dakota for 10 years before gaining the insight that fixing health equity required re-thinking the pathways of new doctors.

How do we encourage and support doctors to think about equity, knowing the current system doesn't necessarily reward that?

Dr. Benson Hsu, Founder, Aequitas Health

Progress is measured in small wins.

When we learn history (preferably from a Reconstruction US course), the big boldface dates and events tend to dominate, but those are often ratifications of the efforts and victories of many people in many places over time. By the time the big victory is ready, it’s actually easier than the small victories notched when it seemed more hopeless. But for Leon Ford, it’s those daily units of progress—conversations with police officers and with young people, inspiring one more person to get engaged—that keep him going. Furthermore, as Dr. Hsu said, small wins are the only way to deal with problems that seem overwhelming at first, which was his experience when thinking about health equity before drilling down into how career pathways are incentivized. Likewise, Adib Dada advised listeners to abandon perfection and start small - you’re always going to make mistakes, so just make them.

When you work for future generations, it’s important to see those generations connect with the work.

For Adib Dada, it’s seeing kids getting their hands dirty when planting trees (to the consternation of their parents) that tells him he’s done something right. We’re so disconnected from nature and from the role it should play in our lives and communities, but kids are close enough to those deeper instincts that they can quickly reconnect and “remember that they’re supposed to be there.” Likewise, for pediatrician Dr. Hsu, working on health threats in the US like gun violence is about protecting kids, and furthering health equity is about building up their futures. For Reconstruction US, of course, it’s even more direct—both the inspiration that comes from seeing children engage in material and see themselves in history and in their country, as well as the frustration of seeing how the current educational system is failing them.

When young people have a cultural identity, their leadership increases, their agency increases.

Kaya Henderson, Co-Founder & CEO, Reconstruction US

It’s more important to share positivity—but negativity spreads faster.

As Leon Ford pointed out, stories about police brutality, racism, violence, and other social traumas spread much faster on social media and are given more prominence in traditional media. But without the countervailing narratives of progress, of building ties and forging unity, it can quickly lead to nihilism and hopelessness. As Mr. Rogers famously advised us, look to the helpers. Also, in the day to day work, having real relationships and connections means that when a police shooting goes viral somewhere in America, police and community leaders have the opportunity to reach out and defuse any tensions before they can set progress back or cause disturbance. The small wins of building relationships can protect your progress when exogenous shocks arrive from the wider world.

How can leaders engage “the center,” and even their opponents, in questioning the status quo?

Small vocal groups often dominate discussions, but that also means that the same old loud voices can be safely ignored. When normal people question the status quo, it tends to change very quickly. For education in the US, the classroom coming home to zoom caused many parents across the political spectrum to question pedagogy in a myriad of ways, which has caused chaos but also progress. When it comes to convincing governments and companies to build a better health system and close gaps, Dr. Nair said, engagement with those very people who are opposing you is key to eventually finding ways forward, and towards building trust and honest communication so at least work can be conducted transparently. No matter what, says Henderson, it’s vital for everyone to be engaged and involved, especially those who are negatively affected by inequitable systems, because “the people closest to the problems have the best solutions.”

Woman and child planting seedlings in a microforest located in Beirut, Lebanon

Leon Ford speaking to community members and students in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The McNulty Prize Catalyst Fund exists to support early-stage ventures from the AGLN, which brings together promising leaders from around the world, and immerses them in cohort-based ethical education, culminating in a commitment to turn their platforms and experiences into action.

  • Kaya Henderson, education administrator, founder of Reconstruction US and former District of Columbia schools chancellor.
  • Dr. Benson Hsu, South Dakota pediatrician and founder of Aequitas Health, which recognizes med students who work on improving health equity.
  • Adib Dada, architect, and founder of TheOtherForest, which practices urban afforestation.
  • Leon Ford, founder of the Hear Foundation, which fosters police reform and community healing.
  • Dr. Ajay Nair, physician and founding CEO of Swasth Alliance, which knits providers, manufacturers, clinics and more into the start of a truly universal health network in India.

Watch the full conversation with the 2023 Catalyst Fund awardees

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