Ahead of the Curve
A New Speaker Series from the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
In our dynamic world, the pursuit of health equity is both valiant and never complete. Generations of public health leaders have devoted themselves to the ultimate goal of a healthier, more equitable world for all. Bringing contemporary leaders to share their insights, vision, and perseverance is the principle of Ahead of the Curve, a new speaker series from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. The series launched in the fall of 2020 with a focus on personal storytelling from dynamic leaders during a pandemic and beyond.
All events are free and open to the public.
Lessons from a Pandemic: Leading with Science
Wednesday, April 14
4:00 pm ET
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Chief Medical Executive and Chief Deputy Director for Health and Human Services
RSVP (Streaming link will be distributed to registrants via email)
Joneigh S. Khaldun, MD, MPH, FACEP is the Chief Medical Executive for the State of Michigan and Chief Deputy Director for Health in the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). In these roles, she provides overall medical guidance for the State of Michigan as a cabinet member of the Governor, and oversees public health and aging programs, Medicaid, and behavioral health for MDHHS. Prior to her MDHHS role, she was the Director and Health Officer for the Detroit Health Department. In February 2021, the Biden administration tapped Dr. Khaldun to join the federal COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.
She is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and currently serves on the National Advisory Board for the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation at the University of Michigan.
Dr. Khaldun has received numerous awards including the 40 Under 40 Leaders in Minority Health Award by the National Minority Quality Forum, the de Beaumont Foundation 40 Under 40 Leaders in Public Health Award, and the George Washington University Dean’s 950 Award. In 2020, she was named a Notable Woman in Health and Newsmaker of the Year by Crain’s Detroit. Dr. Khaldun obtained her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan where she also completed the Summer Enrichment Program at the School of Public Health. She holds a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, MPH in Health Policy from George Washington University, and completed residency in emergency medicine at SUNY Downstate Medical Center/Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, NY, where she was elected chief resident in her final year. She practices emergency medicine part time at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
Leadership to Inspire Global Change
Tuesday, January 26
4:00 pm ET
Dr. Julio Frenk, MPH '81 and PhD '83, President of the University of Miami
A fourth-generation physician whose paternal grandparents fled Germany in the early 1930s to build a new life in Mexico, Julio Frenk catalyzed his deep gratitude for the kindness of strangers into a lifelong mission to improve the health, education, and well-being of people around the world. Dr. Frenk currently serves as president of the University of Miami. He began his presidency in August of 2015 following nearly seven years as dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Dr. Frenk has an extensive professional record spanning three decades and a career that has included leadership positions in all relevant aspects of public health and higher education: research, teaching, analysis of public policies, institution-building, international cooperation, and national public service.
0:00:10 DuBois Bowman: Thank you for joining us for Ahead of the Curve, a new speaker series from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. We're looking forward to welcoming a guest who is revered in his work in public health and higher education, Dr. Julio Frenk. My name is DuBois Bowman, and I'm privileged to serve as Dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. This is our second event for Ahead of the Curve, it's a speaker series that will focus on conversations about leadership. Leadership is a critical component of navigating complex public health challenges in building a better future through improved health and equity. For about a year, we've been living through a public health challenge of historic proportions and the COVID-19 pandemic, and we've also confronted persistent issues of racism and the intersection really of these two things as we think about the widespread health inequities across the country that we've witnessed due to COVID. As problems become increasingly complex, we must turn our attention and resources to developing leaders, building from the well-known assertion of Warren Bennis a preeminent scholar in the study of leadership, leaders are made rather than born.
0:01:33 Bowman: Regardless of one's inequalities, certainly development is a clear component of leadership. Throughout this series, we will bring contemporary leaders spanning many sectors to share their insights, their vision, and stories really about perseverance. We wanna hear about those important factors that shape great leaders and learn how leaders continue to evolve and grow so that we can help make the next generation of leaders. With that, I'm delighted to welcome Dr. Julio Frenk to Ahead of the Curve. Julio serves as President of the University of Miami and is a proud alumnus of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Julio, welcome, and thank you for joining us.
0:02:15 Julio Frenk: Thank you very much DuBois.
0:02:18 Bowman: Today's topic is leadership to inspire global change. As we begin 2021 leadership weighs heavily on the minds of many, due in part to national politics, but as we know, leaders are all around us in our immediate environment, influences our daily lives to a high degree, and that includes life on college campus. I anticipate that in today's discussion, there will be important lessons for seasoned leaders, for new leaders, and importantly for future leaders as you reflect upon your future path and find ways to contribute now, even from where you are.
So Julio, I'd like to start by going back just to discuss and hear about your personal and professional leadership journey. And as I think about prominent leaders, the richness is often not fully captured by one's current position. I find it fascinating to hear the arc of one's career and yours has certainly been a remarkable one where you've worn many significant hats in different sectors, in different capacities. So, will you please tell us about your pathway to becoming President of the University of Miami?
0:03:38 Frenk: Well again, thank you, DuBois. For me it’s always a pleasure to come back to my alma mater. I'm so grateful to everything I received from the University of Michigan and five glorious years, I lived in Ann Arbor, so it's an honor for me to participate in this discussion. I'll be brief and I'm grateful for the question because sometimes it's more important that your CV is your biography, it explains more about who you are and not what you are or what job you have. But I will say it in a minute. My family on my father's side were refugees. They were forced to leave their home country of Germany in the 1930s. They were escaping from the Nazi oppression, and they found a country that was much more, not from an economic and material point view, but a much richer in what matters most and that country was Mexico. My father was six years old and arrived with his parents, my grandparents, and his one sibling, my aunt. And started anew in a county that they didn't know anyone, they didn’t speak the language.
And one of the motivations of my life has been this idea of the generosity of strangers. It's easy to be generous to your family or friends, but the real test of generosity is when you're generous to strangers and Mexico was very generous to my family. They saved their lives and made my own life possible. So to me the overriding concept to me and my siblings and we were brought up with a strong sense of debt of gratitude, and that's been my driving force. How do you give back? How do you reciprocate that generosity of strangers by doing something that's meaningful for people who you may never meet, but where you have the satisfaction of knowing that you're doing something that will help them?
And I have found my vehicle through healthcare and through higher education. Those have been my two avenues to fulfill that dream. I went to medical school. I’m the fourth generation of the Frenk side of physicians. We say medicine is a genetic risk factor. So I went and followed in the footsteps of my father, who has been a great inspiration for me and his father and my great-grandfather. And then when I was in medical school, I decided that I would pursue a career in public health because I still wanted to see patients, but I want a society to be my patient, which is the way I think about public health. And fortunately for me, I found that space at Michigan. As I said I spent four years and one year as faculty, and then although I had, I think, a promising career, it could have been, I was already an assistant professor at UofM. But I was called back to Mexico by an inspirational Minister of Health who was launching a reform, and offering me the opportunity to start what eventually became the National Institute of Poverty Health. And I had the privilege of founding that organization right now, I think the leading institution in higher education and research on public health in any developing country.
0:07:01 Frenk: And then I went to the World Health Organization. I was called back to Mexico to serve as Minister of Health, Secretary of Health at the federal level and a historic moment. I served in that capacity for a full administration of six years. It was very satisfying in that public service. And then I went back to academia. Came back to the United States as Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and from there I was offered or invited to be considered for the position of President of University of Miami. By then I was very interested in the role of higher education broadly.
And so my life has asserted between healthcare and higher education, between life in the academy and life in the policy-making world. But the unifying theme, although it appears as a very disparate set of positions, has been this overriding idea of giving back, of serving, of recognizing that I wouldn’t have been alive have it not been for the generosity of people who didn't know me and didn't know my family, but made our lives possible. And that's what I'm trying to pay back.
0:08:15 Bowman: Thank you very much. I think a fascinating story and journey in a very inspiring one for all of us, not only the positions that you've held really what you described for most is like a number of different careers packaged into one, but also some very inspiring messages that I think all of us can borrow from and reflect on those lessons even in our own work. So given the distinct kinds of positions that you've held and the tremendous success that you've had in those positions, you are an alumnus, as you've noted from the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, what role did your education play and preparing you for the careers and the ability to move through different types of careers?
0:09:14 Frenk: You know, the best decision I ever made was to attend the University of Michigan. I was brought there because I had read the work of Avertis Donabedian, the most outstanding figure in the field of quality care, and I was very interested in issues of healthcare and quality specifically, and I wanted to study with him. Avertis became my mentor. He taught me all the essential things I needed. Avertis was a scholar, a true call. I mean, the breath of his wisdom was amazing. So I know a lot about healthcare, but that's not what I got from my education. To have some factual and foundational knowledge is very important but Avertis taught me how to think in a rigorous, systematic way that includes both rigor in adherence to evidence, but it includes also ethical reason as a way of thinking about healthcare because healthcare is so fraught with ethical questions. And I had other outstanding professors, Rashid Bashshur who is to this day a dear friend. I met some of my long life friends, some of whom unfortunately have passed, but I'm still very close to Hillary Murt who still lives in Ann Arbor and we were classmates. And those are friendships that last for your entire life.
So that was part of my experience, but having a mentor in those formative years is absolutely crucial. And that has guided me to one of the great strengths of Michigan, which was the flexibility. I ended up doing a joint PhD, it was called then, I don't know if it's still called the individual departmental degree program in the department of what was then called Medical Organization (the successor department now is the Health Services Management and Policy) and the Department of Sociology in Literature, Science, and the Arts. And that duality was incredibly enriching. It was truly an experience that was tailored to my need, my interest, and that has allowed me to do everything I have done, including that career plasticity, I call it, where because I didn't become a narrow specialist, but rather I had this training in how to think about problems and how to address them, that I've been able to move from the world of policy to the world of academia and academic administration.
So I have many degrees. I got three degrees from Michigan: my master of public health, my master of arts, and my joint PhD between the School of Public Health and the Department of Sociology. And then I was very honored to receive an honorary doctorate. So someone told me that I had more degrees from Michigan than a thermometer. And I’m very proud of those degrees and very grateful for the superb education I received.
0:12:42 Bowman: Terrific. Again, a wonderful story. And the message really I think is more timely than ever, as I think about the world, how rapidly it changes and what our graduates will have to face throughout their careers. And pulling from a phrase that I've heard you use before, this idea of career plasticity, which is so important as we think about preparing the next generation of leaders. So I'd like to transition into a set of questions that really focus on your position in higher ed, but really it's your unique position in higher ed as someone with the public health background. And so you lead an institution during a time of intersecting public health crises of racism and COVID-19 and with your background as a public health professional and also a physician, how has your public health training informed your leadership over the last year at the University of Miami?
0:13:53 Frenk: Well, you know, if there was the time to have the training I’ve had, that's been it. My education at Michigan has helped me not only during the pandemic, because of that issue of career plasticity, and I do think for the students who are watching us, I think my career path was a bit exceptional when I went through that, but I think it's the dominant pattern today. No longer do we have fixed lanes in our career path. I think we need to have that flexibility, that creativity to seek opportunities and take advantage of them. And I think career plasticity is going to be the dominant feature as our graduates are facing the most dynamic labor marketing history and that kind of critical thinking, ethical reasoning, ability to communicate persuasively, teamwork, and it was those themes that actually attracted me a lot to become a university president. I think we're at the threshold of an educational revolution, and already the education I received in the 1980s at the University of Michigan really was ahead of its time because it prepared me exactly for the type of reality, Back then, may be my experience was exceptional, but today, I think it's going to be more of the career path of current graduates, graduating into this very dynamic labor market where conditions are changing all the time because of automation and artificial intelligence.
0:15:30 Frenk: So it's helped me a lot even before, but this year because of the pandemic it’s been absolutely crucial. My public health training of thinking about populations, of thinking dynamically, understanding the fundamentals of epidemiology has just been very, very, very important. And I would highlight, when we were trying to decide to have in person instruction or continue online, I did a very rigorous comparative risk analysis. I tried to compare the risks to our students of either having classes on campus or not allowing them, and it was my ability to look at data, to understand patterns, to know that whatever I was looking at today in terms of number of cases was reflecting patterns and decisions that had been made two weeks before, that I needed to understand what had happened before to understand where we were and to project where we're going, and public health gives you exactly that way of thinking. It’s thinking in a dynamic way so that you understand that your current circumstances are determined by events in the past and will shape what comes ahead. So it allows you to do this sort of prospective planning and that has been the key. I believe in public health. I decided that there was a risk in re-opening for sure, but that if we follow the science, we could do so safely.
0:16:59 Frenk: So we invested a lot of money in reconfiguring spaces and changing filtration systems. We produced very rigorous protocols of mandatory use of face coverings, regular testing, and contact tracing. Applying everything we know. And we were able actually to have a very successful, most in-person, we gave a choice to students or students didn’t have a choice because they had an underlying medical condition or there were international students who just could get to the United States, but for about 75% of the students who did show up, we were able to have a healthy, secure, successful semester, with cases but with a very robust system for testing and tracing. And it just reaffirmed that science does work, public health does work when you adhere to that and you avoid the politicization of some of the measures, which has been one of the sad parts of the way the larger society has handled it. But we managed to do that.
And then as you say, it's been a unique year because it's been that public health crisis, but that has triggered an economic crisis and it has also brought to light a social crisis stemming from deep inequalities and racial injustice. So handling all of that has required a lot of very focused leadership and certainly my experience at Michigan has helped me enormously to do so.
0:18:32 DuBois: Terrific. Thank you so much for that. And I'd like to ask, maybe for you to expand a little bit. You alluded to it really in your comments, and you talked about your public health approach as a university leader to think about concrete and safe plans for reopening. But of course, as university presidents or other administrators across the country face this challenge, it's really not a challenge in isolation, it's really the balancing of safety on the one hand, but then really the precious part of our mission in terms of fulfillment of education. And so I'm wondering for you how you thought about the coupling of those two things as you approached the last fall semester and now moving into the spring semester at University of Miami.
0:19:31 Frenk: No, that is exactly right. One of the attributes of leadership, I think, is to try to strike the adequate balances, understand that there are no perfect solutions when you're dealing with a complex situation, and that it's never an all or nothing situation. For example, a lot of the discussion as we were considering our plans for the fall, having like every university we pivoted in the Spring of 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic where there was so much we didn't know, we did what every university did. We pivoted quickly to finish the Spring of 2020, the early months of 2020, fully online. But then came the dilemma, what to do after the summer. And the idea was exactly to balance the richness of an in-person instruction with the risks. But a lot of the discussion seemed to suggest that all the risk was concentrated on opening up for welcoming students back on campus, as if letting students stay at home, not allowing them on campus, was a risk-free alternative. And I spent countless hours, literally of the day and the night thinking about this, and I concluded that there was also a risk in not welcoming students back. As it turns out, our students, like many students, here I’m talking about mostly our undergraduates and I appreciate that the School of Public Health is mostly a graduate school, but for the younger students on our campus, it’s a moment they've been waiting, it's a moment when they leave their parents home. So a lot of the students have literally moved to Miami and they had rented apartments literally across the street. And so as I thought this carefully, I realized what we were trying to avoid where the more of the social interactions where there was risk and exposure to the virus, but keeping the students outside, although it was an easier solution for us, didn’t mean that they would be risk-free. And in the end I concluded in that balance of risks, that offering the opportunity with very careful protocols, where a quarter to a third of our students were not going to be on campus, so we were able to de-densify, where we were going to introduce rigorous testing, we also started like Michigan, a program of Public Health Ambassadors, peer students who were trained to respectfully but firmly provide positive peer pressure to other students so that they comply with what we were doing, and then millions of dollars invested in rearranging spaces and filtering. We also, like Michigan which has a superb program in music, we have a school of music. That's a high risk, especially wind instruments. Well, we changed all the air handling systems.
0:22:52 Frenk: And the idea was, if you do this the right way, and it is a message for the larger society. The problem is we've been in a full dilemma between protecting people's health or reactivating the economy. Those two objectives go in synergy. You have to think about them, and if you do the things the right way, you can re-open safely. The problem is we open too soon and too carelessly without instituting the necessary protocols. Where I felt that in a more controlled environment we could do that, not carelessly, but carefully, very carefully and very cautiously. And we were able to do it. We did have cases, of course, we knew we would have cases, but we were never overwhelmed. And we had zero cases, we couldn’t document a single case of classroom transmissions. All transmission happened in the dorms, most infections occurring outside of campus, and the vast majority of students actually complied. By that, I mean literally 98%. Now, with that 2% with a virus that's highly contagious, is very dangerous. But the other thing I thought about the last thing I'll tell you is, if we had just decided to keep our doors closed, which probably would have been an easier solution, first of all, I wasn’t denying my belief in science and in public health. Because I had to say, “Well, if I believe in public health, we apply the science, we've gotta be able to do this safely”, but most importantly I thought that giving up sent a terrible message. And the message was that we couldn't trust students in that generation, students 18 to 24 years. If you think historically, that's the age group of students that have fought almost all wars, that have been the leaders of social movements, activists who risked their lives for civil rights, for equality, for many other causes, and we're saying that we can’t trust young people to sacrifice the social aspect of their education, which is the sacrifice because it's an important part of college experience, but we're asking them to sacrifice for a higher objective, which is the rest of the educational experience. And saying that we cannot trust would have meant giving up on your people, and I thought that was just not right.
So we trusted, we tried to inspire students to do the right thing, we used positive peer pressure, and for the minority that did not follow the rules, we did institute sanctions including expulsion or losing the right to be on campus if you couldn't live up to the trust that was deposited in you. But by and large it was a good experience and was driven by all of those considerations. All of that, driven by a public health mindset, I would say.
0:25:51 Bowman: Yeah, and the University of Miami is certainly very fortunate to have your leadership, with your public health background, your medical background, and commitment to education. Expanding, one of the things that has played out even more broadly in society during the COVID pandemic is this tension between individual interests or even liberties and contributions to the collective good. And drawing parallels in higher education and other sectors, the most effective leaders are ones who are able to motivate and inspire individuals toward a shared vision or goal, and I'm wondering if you can share with us at any point in your career, whether related to COVID or not, an example where it was important to align people and comment maybe on the strategies that you used to do it.
0:26:48 Frenk: Absolutely. I mean, in every position I’ve had, articulating not the what but the why, why are we doing this, is a fundamental element of the communication that has to proceed any proposal for action. And that requires identifying a goal that's worth pursuing, and almost all goals that are worth pursuing involve other people. It's very hard, unless you're an incredibly self-centred person, just to think about your own goals. Your own goals are important as well and you certainly need to take care of yourself as an individual, but it's when we as humans connect to something that transcends us, that we really fulfill our sense of mission and a sense of legacy of leaving something behind, because we're all here for just a limited period of time. And to me, the idea of legacy is the cornerstone of leadership. It's thinking rigorously, what do I want to live behind when I am gone? And being gone means, you can be gone from a job, we have terms. I had six years to be Secretary of Health in Mexico. I started thinking on day one, how am I going to make sure that if I survive the six years (with politics you never have that guaranteed, but I did last the six years) how do I assure that I leave things behind better than the way I received them? And being purposeful and understanding that legacy is fundamental and we always build those legacies with others. So to me, that's a central attribute of leadership and being able to communicate persuasively about that is critical.
0:28:47 Frenk: Coming to the case of the pandemic, since it’s the topic the absorbs us now, one of the striking features is the huge variation in the way that countries at the same level of economic development, how widely differing the effectiveness of their responses has been. These are countries of equal level of development, it's the same virus, it's the same human species, and yet some countries have been able to control the virus very effectively, and others have had a very poor performance in dealing with the virus. And when you look at that comparison, what you find is that it's in the countries where leaders had set to unify people around managing the pandemic and have convincingly persuaded everyone that their own individual wellbeing is depending on the collective wellbeing, those are the ones that have done best. The countries where they have done the worst, far from that have politicized the response to the pandemic. And a consistent pattern around the world is that around the worst performances, you have countries led by populist leaders, and I'm not just talking about the United States, because I do not want to politicize this statement, but this is around the globe. Whether it's Russia or Turkey or Hungary or India or Mexico, my country now with a populist leader, or Brazil, it is a uniform element because part of the essential logic of populism is to divide people, to identify people that are defined as others, and then quickly blame them for whatever it's going on, include a pandemic. And part of that is translated into politicizing some public health measures. The most sad of them was the face covering and this should have never been allowed to happen if you explain that wearing a face cover certainly protects you but most importantly it protects others. And by thinking or framing that as an issue of individual freedom without understanding the element of neutrality and reciprocity that is signified by using a face cover, I think perverted the whole debate.
This is the exact same reason why we do not allow people who are intoxicated, for example, with alcohol to drive. It protects them, but it protects other people who would otherwise be innocent victims of drunk driving and we don't question that. But somehow in those countries that have not done well, we fail to put some of these public health measures in the same line. And we're paying a big price for that. I think if there's one lesson, it’s that we need to be able to persuasively connect people to something that's bigger. And then it also happens to be the best way to protect themselves, then again, that becomes a false dilemma. My own health is hugely dependent on what I do for other people's health, and nowhere is this more obvious than with infectious diseases. So if we can align enlightened self-interest with generosity and compassion, then you have a very powerful, a very powerful formula to address a crisis.
0:32:49 Bowman: Very profound statements, ones that we could probably spend substantial time digging into but thank you for sharing those remarks. Referring back to something that you alluded to earlier, illuminating health inequities will undoubtedly be a legacy of the pandemic. The pandemic has also revealed inequities in many other areas, including education, thinking about the rapid change that you mentioned back in March, the rapid pivot to remote education and the circumstances and conditions that people return to. As we start 2021, how should we focus our efforts as a field from a public health perspective, but even more broadly in thinking about higher ed, to address these inequities.
0:33:47 Frenk: Yeah. It's that confluence of the three crises and they interact. The trigger was a pandemic, but the economic crisis has not affected everyone. The iniquity starts there. Not everyone has the ability to work from home. There's people who I live literally day-by-day. Most of the essential workers, the so called essential workers, were out there risking their lives being more exposed to the virus, we’re also the poorest members, members of minorities, people who suffer racial injustice. And then on top of that, we had the events in the summer leading to a reactivation of the cry for racial justice. And it's been all of this against the backdrop of a very serious polarization...exactly what you don't need in an emergency, which is divisiveness.
So, I think universities have a huge role in continuing to address this confluence of crisis. Now, the public health crisis is the one where I think we can see an end to that because I think thanks to the brightest element of this pandemic which has been the unprecedented level of cooperation among scientists to produce a vaccine in record time, a safe and effective vaccine in record time, that has to stand as an incredible achievement. We now need to match our distribution and logistics to the scientific feat of developing a vaccine, but we can see now there is light at the end of the tunnel of the pandemic, but we're still in the middle of that tunnel.
0:35:32 Frenk: And we're still, in the middle of that tunnel, there's the other crisis. And we can not just come out and think that the pandemic is over and we can go back to where we were before. Because the economic and especially the social crisis are not going. They’re going to outlive the pandemic for many, many years to come. This is an opportunity, because the pandemic has brought out to light some of those fundamental inequities, to really, really commit ourselves to addressing their root classes. And that's another element of public health. We're not content with dealing with the symptoms or the manifestations of a health problem, we dig deeply into the roots, and that includes the social determinant of poor health. And among them, racial discrimination, anti-Black discrimination, in the United States and other countries is a fundamental root cause.
I strongly believe and one of my motivations to work in the university is that universities have to serve as exemplary institutions. This is a very old idea, the idea that this community of scholars and students, who are united by the thirst for knowledge and learning, can develop a set of values, adhere to those values and a set of behaviors that serves as an example for the larger society of which they're a part. And if there ever was a time to serve as exemplary institutions, it is now. We need to model for the world out there this sense of, first of all, that we value diversity. It's not tolerance, it's embrace of difference. The difference makes us stronger, that diversity is not just the right thing to pursue from an ethical point of view, which it is, it’s also the smart thing to do because different allows difference of perspectives. We need to embrace the balance of freedom of inquiry and speech and model our ability to disagree respectfully. And then show that at a time when civil interactions, civil discourse has rapidly deteriorated and we don't listen to what other people are saying, we just dismiss them ahead of time if it happens to not coincide with our views. So allowing ourselves to show and demonstrate respectful disagreement, the ability to debate ideas, use reason, we commit ourselves to truth. Understanding that the pursuit of truth is contradictory, dynamic, it's constantly changing, but we gotta say it is not okay to say whatever you want, especially in the public arena and lie, and say that's okay. It’s not okay. We do have standards to judge the truth content of a statement. We need to show that’s our core actually. We are here in the pursuit of truth. We need to show and redouble that commitment and show that it is possible. Truth may not be absolute but there are standards to judge the truth content of statements. Bring back stability, ability to interact to disagree, celebration of difference, inclusiveness, and the relentless pursuit of equality of opportunity, which is at the root of the ideals of higher dictation. If we do that, not only will we be out of the pandemic, but we will get over the economic crisis, and we may make momentous progress like what we haven't seen since the civil rights movement on addressing the racial justice crisis.
0:39:16 Bowman: Thank you very much. And I go into 2021 with a sense of optimism of the role that institutions of higher ed can play in really facilitating much of the change that you just referenced. So the last question I'd like to ask just in terms of the COVID pandemic and your role as University President, for many leaders, the pandemic has brought a relentless pace of very complex and challenging work activity, and I can only imagine how busy your schedule has been over the last several months, and I'd like to just prompt you to comment on any lessons that you've learned about the importance of self-care or care for other leaders in your organization or other members, including students at your university.
0:40:09 Frenk: Yes, it's crucial to understand that this is a marathon and not a sprint. That we need, especially when you're a leader you have a special responsibility to remain healthy because you're not healthy enough to fulfil your duties you put others at even higher risk. So it's a tough one because we're all very driven people, and we tend to work long hours. One liberation here has been the inability to travel and I'm not going back to my travel schedule from before the pandemic. That's one of the lessons. There's so much that we can do more productively using some of this technology. Some travel is essential and I do look forward to many in-person encounters once we are out of that, but that has liberated a reservoir of time that I don't know how I would have done without that. But being mindful is important. I try probably not enough as I should to take care and to be mindful about my own health, being introspective, being self-aware, understanding when you're reaching a limit and then protecting also the team. Leadership is never solitary, even though there are moments of great loneliness when you need to make a decision that's very involved and you own it. You cannot tell anyone that it's the team, that's you. It's not withstanding those elements. It is a team effort and making sure you take care of the team in the service of the larger community is absolutely critical. And so I try to take up a few moments in the day for deliberate exercise in mindfulness, in understanding my own, being aware of my own sensations, where I am, being aware of my surroundings. And trying simply to take, sometimes it's a 5-minute or a 10-minute break of focusing on the moment and trying not to be consumed by the anxiety of the uncertainty.
Pandemics are defined by uncertainty. It’s the first time we're encountering that particular pathogen. There's a lot we don't know. You have to be very thoughtful about mastering the anxiety that unavoidably accompanies uncertainty and not let that get the best of you. And that requires a lot of focus on what you have at hand, understanding the various elements that you need to master in that moment. Even as I was saying before, you're taking into account what happened before to understand the present and you are projecting towards the future. I use models extensively. But once you understand that dynamic, part of taking care of yourself is mastering the uncertainty and being very self-aware about your own feelings and accepting your own vulnerability. We're not called to be...let me tell you this. It's related to the resistance of some political leaders, mostly these populist leaders I was talking about to wear a face covering. It’s a false idea of leaders being strong, and I see this most in men. Because the other interesting pattern is, among the best performing countries you have an over-representation of countries where the leaders are women: New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany, Denmark, Norway. You have this over-representation. And instead in the worst places, some of these populist leaders like to portray themselves as strong men, and that false idea of strength.
0:44:21 Frenk: When I wear a mask, I'm not showing weakness, I’m showing the strength of caring for others. Because a mask is not so much “I'm so strong because I'll be vulnerable and I'm not gonna get sick” it's, “I am strong to care for you, to think about you”. And re-thinking what strengths means as a leader, it's not the alpha male mindset. That's a common stereotype of leadership. It's actually your ability to think about others and care about others that actually provides you with the inner drive to then take care of yourself because there's something higher that's calling to service. So service, along with the send of legacy, is the other overriding attribute I think of a good leadership. And in my case, it comes back to the story I told at the beginning. The idea that you're giving back, that you're serving, and that actually is what builds in legacy.
0:45:23 Bowman: Excellent. You've touched on the impact of politics and the context of politics, as I think about your career, there's a clear global component. And you've held leadership positions in Mexico, the World Health Organization, different regions of the United States, how does national or regional culture, possibly politics, impact or affect how you lead or how individuals expect for you to lead?
0:45:57 Frenk: Well, there's a lot of cultural specificity. This thing about what is a strong leader, it's very cultural, and you will find other societies where it's not like that. And there is this gender consideration that I described. I do hope they're one of the big lessons of the pandemic, one of the positive outcomes of the pandemic is we put to rest forever the idea that women cannot be effective political leaders because they have been the best leaders in managing this emergency. So there's a lot of specificity. But look, I like to make a distinction between politics and politicking. Politicking is the usual almost caricature of back-stabbing and lying at convenience. To me politics, non-corrupt politics is the art and science of reaching agreement for valued and shared goals. You can articulate a goal that’s shared and valued and then you reach compromise and agreement. That is good politics, and it's unavoidable whether...I was asked to serve in the cabinet when I was minister or Secretary Health in Mexico, not because I was a politician, I did not belong then and I still don’t belong to any political party, but I was brought as an expert. What a crazy idea, right? Bring an expert to the cabinet.
0:47:33 Frenk. But the President then, President Fox had that idea that not for all positions in cabinet, but those that had a strong technical core, like health, environment, education, those secretaries, members of the cabinet, we were all people who were not appointed because we were politicians. But I always understood that this was a political job. I used to say, I am not a professional politician in a health job, I am a health professional in a political job. You need to understand that it is a political job, and it goes from government, but also you can’t be dean or a president if you don't understand the politics of universities, of faculties, of student life. But it's turning politics into that positive exercise, and again, I hope we rescue that concept of the art and science of reaching agreement through compromise, through respectful disagreement, through finding common ground, in order to pursue shared and valued goals. And if we do that the other thing we might come out of is healing the political landscape, which is so fractured and so much the opposite of what I just described. It’s much more politicking than politics. And the key here is not to confuse the ends and the means. Politics becomes corrupted when power becomes the end and service the means. If you oppose that and power, having some power, some control over resource of decision becomes the means to a higher end, which is to serve people, then politics is a dignified activity.
0:49:24 Frenk: And you need for that to have a strong sense of integrity. You don't do things that your ethical code of conduct doesn’t allow you. I, when I was in the cabinet, I walked with a letter of resignation in my pocket and the President knew it. And if he asked me to do something that I didn't believe in, I would put it out. You need to be able to do that and you need to be able to communicate that you will behave with integrity. And again integrity is core to honest politics. So yeah, I was in the political job, I'm still in a political job. But if you understand that your ultimate goal is service, serving others, and you act with integrity, then you can make that a very dignified part of your job as a leader.
0:50:14 Bowman: Excellent. I'd like to ask one final question, and this is a light question, but it'll play on actually the name of this leadership speaker series Ahead of the Curve. Is there anything that you'd wanna say to the audience about how you as a leader stay ahead of the curve?
0:50:32 Frenk: Yeah, I love this title. Because the key with this pandemic has always been to say ahead of the curve. But generally, that’s an enormously valued proposition. Look, the first thing I would say is to cultivate diversity of thought. We need to cultivate diversity in every dimension, but that includes purposely surrounding yourself with people who think differently than you, and identifying your own weaknesses and recruiting a team that complements and compensates even for some of your own weaknesses. Self-awareness and the ability to say “I don't know everything, I have my own blind spots, I need to build a team that's diverse in every dimension, racial, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, and diversity of thought”. Because as I was saying, diversity is not just the right thing to do ethically, which it is, it’s also the smart thing to do. And if you have that diversity of perspectives, you are much more likely to get ahead of the curve because whatever bias any one member of the team, including yourself has, and we all have biases, they will be neutralized by other people. Encouraging disagreement and you know, very often, people will start when we have regular, almost every day meetings to see how we're doing with managing the pandemic on campus, and very often, I see a colleague say “with all due respect” when they’re going to say something that disagrees with me, and I say “Please understand, I don't interpret disagreement a disrespect. It's good for us to disagree.” Those are elements of staying ahead of the curve. Because the curve, if you take it, it's very hard to see what's on the other side of the curve, and the way you lift yourself is when you stand on the shoulders of a large group of people who think differently and figuratively they allow you to see beyond the curve, so you can stay ahead of the curve.
So those are elements that I would bring and then integrity, rethinking what it is to be strong. So integrity, community, team-building and be driven by evidence, not by prejudice, listening to the science, and mix evidence that is science driven with experience-based intuition. Also trust your intuition when you have experience, that's another thing, and I know at some points when the evidence was not that clear, I drew into my reservoir of experience to try to say what makes sense to me. Some of the things I was saying before about the relative risk of keeping students outside or allowing them into the campus, that was more intuitive, but it was based on experience. And getting that balance, always use the evidence you have available, but also rely on your experience and not just yours, but the team. That's where the diversity of perspectives is so, so valuable. If you do that, I think you have a good chance of staying ahead of the curve.
0:53:58 Bowman: Absolutely. We're just about out of time now, but I can't think of a better way to end than on those very insightful remarks. I've certainly enjoyed a lot myself, and it's always a pleasure to have an opportunity to sit down and speak with you. And I'm sure our listeners have benefited a great deal as well. So I'd like to thank Dr. Julio Frank for giving of his time and insights into leadership and current events, and even ideas just about handling leadership through challenges and risk-taking. So thank you all again for joining us. Thank you to Dr. Frenk. Be well, stay safe, and Go Blue.
Resilient Leadership in a Dynamic World
Tuesday, November 10 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Tonya Allen, MPH and MSW '96, President and CEO of The Skillman Foundation
Tonya Allen, a serial “idea-preneur,” serves as The Skillman Foundation’s president & chief executive officer. Her two-decade-long career has centered on pursuing, executing and investing in ideas that improve her hometown of Detroit and increase opportunities for its people, especially children, who live in under-resourced communities. In her current role, Allen aligns the complexities of education reform, urban revitalization, and public policy to improve the well-being of Detroit’s and the nation’s children.
Read more in Tonya's We Are Michigan Public Health profile
Listen to Tonya on the Population Healthy podcast episode "A City of Resilience; Public Health in Detroit"
00:09 Bowman: Thank you for joining us for Ahead of the Curve, a new speaker series from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. We're grateful for your participation today, and we're looking forward to welcoming an esteemed guest in Tonya Allen in just a moment. My name is DuBois Bowman. I am privileged to serve as Dean of the School of Public Health here at the University of Michigan. This is our inaugural event for Ahead of the Curve, it's a speaker series that will bring conversations about leadership to our campus and beyond. Leadership is a critical component of navigating complex public health challenges and building a better future through improved health and equity. We are experiencing important leadership lessons first hand as we watch the novel Coronavirus affect all corners of the world. As problems become increasingly complex, we must turn our attention and resources to developing leaders. Building on the well-known assertion of Warren Bennis, a pre-eminent scholar in the study of leadership, leaders are made rather than born. Regardless of the inequalities that an individual brings to leadership, development is clearly important. Throughout this series, we will bring contemporary leaders spanning many sectors to share their insights, their vision, their experiences and perseverance. We want to hear about those important factors that shape great leaders and learn about how leaders continue to evolve and grow. That in turn will help us determine how to prepare the next generation of leaders.
So with that, I'm delighted to welcome Tonya Allen to Ahead of the Curve. Tonya serves as President and CEO of the Skillman Foundation and is a proud alumna of the University of Michigan. Tonya, welcome and thank all of you for joining us.
02:02 Allen: Thanks for having me, DuBois.
02:04 Bowman: So today's topic is resilient leadership for a dynamic world. All leaders are encountering new situations in 2020, and the Skillman Foundation I'm sure is no exception, and this will be a common thread throughout our conversation today, leading during a pandemic. And I would imagine that you're having to call upon a reservoir of lessons learned during your career to best position your organization. So I'd like to just start with a series of questions that touch on your personal and professional leadership journey. So to begin, would you please tell us about the Skillman Foundation and your position there.
02:44 Allen: Yeah, I'd love to. So again, thanks for having me. I'm so honored to be here with you today, particularly because I just appreciate your leadership in moments like this as well. So the Skillman Foundation is a private children's foundation. So we have about a half a billion dollars in assets. And we give away about 5% to issues facing children in Detroit. Our mission is for every child in Detroit to be able to learn and lead so that they can have an effective life. And we really believe that because the future of Detroit is inextricably tied with its children. And so what we attempt to do is to try and make sure that those young people have opportunities to be successful and that they have opportunities quite honestly, to inherit their birthright and be prepared for it, which is the city of Detroit. And so my role there, as you can imagine, is just to manage the foundation, manage its resources that we're making good investments, and both are philanthropic purposes, but also in the markets, so that we have resources that will sustain our organization for the long term. The last thing I would just say is that that's my basic role, but what I've chosen for my work to really be, is to make sure that the resources we have are really leveraged. That the sum of the parts should really equal more than the total of those parts. And so we really try to make sure that we're working with partners, that we all are coming to some agreement to have a common agenda for children, and we will invest in that with the intention of sustained impact and really essentially to try and convince them to tackle the hard and stubborn problems that most people don't want to tackle. That's what I really see my role as, is being this fierce champion and advocate for Detroit's children and helping to bring other people along with me.
05:05 Bowman: Terrific. Such a wonderful focus and goal of the work that you're doing and that you're leading at the Foundation. And you touched upon this actually in your response, but I'd like to just ask it even more directly - if you even put yourself out of your position and think of the mission of the work at the Foundation, why is leadership important in that work?
05:36 Allen: Yeah, I think, okay, well, that's a great question. I think that leadership is not about an individual person doing a great thing, it's really about how that person enables other people to do great things. So that's how I kind of come at leadership, and I think you see it show up at the Skillman Foundation at our ethos, which is, this is not about taking credit, this is actually about creating an enabling environment where we all get to win. And so I think that having that kind of, what I would call a selfless approach to leadership doesn't mean that you're meek, it doesn't mean that you're not confident, it means that you're actually bold and you're confident enough that you don't have to own the impact. You don't have to have credit for the impact of your leadership. What you want to do is have co-ownership of that whatever you're trying to accomplish, because then that gives us a muscle memory of how we get hard things done. And that's how I think about leadership, is how are we enabling others, how do we make sure that what we're doing isn't about ourselves, it’s about others, and about creating a pathway for the future generations that will follow us.
07:02 Bowman: Absolutely. So as I think about prominent leaders, I'm often fascinated just not by the current position or posts that they hold, but the richness of the journey. And so you now serve in a very prominent role, a very impactful role as President and CEO of the Skillman Foundation. Will you take a moment just to tell our listeners about the pathway that you took to get there?
07:30 Allen: Yeah, well, I'm happy to tell you about it. I don't know how interesting it is, but I'll tell you a couple of things because I think they're important. As a leader, and particularly as an African-American woman, I often say, I'm gonna lead like an African-American woman, and what I mean simply by that is that if we don't lead from our lived experiences and from our diversity, then we're not really showing up the full breadth of how and what leadership looks like. And so for me, I'll tell you one of the things that probably was most defining in my career, well not my career, probably in my life and then I'll get to my career in one second, was that I went to nine different schools through my K-12 experience. I went to one high school. So that just tells you how much I moved around and a lot of children have that experience. And I was lucky enough to have that experience and to translate it into something different. I'm not afraid of change. I actually thrive in it. I know how to build authentic relationships. And I also remember what it's like for people when they experience change, so as a person who likes to be a purveyor of change, so I have to always keep that lived experience in mind. And I think it kind of fuels the work that I do.
And so my career was simply I started off being a community organizer and I learned a very important principle, which is power is organized people or organized money. And as a community organizer, I was learning how to organize people and really getting people to believe in a shared agenda, a shared faith, how to work collaboratively on that, and I did it mostly in public health and community development work, issues that we're dealing with, the issues that are connected to health disparities. But what I didn't know how to do was the second half of that power equation, how do you organize money? And so I was very intentional to go into philanthropy with this view of how do you begin to organize money. Not just how do you deliver or distribute the money inside of your own institution, but how do you use that money to attract other money and how to use that money in conjunction with organized people to get enough power to change the rules. And that's what I define power as, the ability to rewrite the rules.
And so that's basically been the driver behind my career, and so I've gone in between organizing people, organizing money, sometimes organizing both at the same time, which I think I do now. And that's been working locally at community development organizations, creating the Detroit Parent Network, working on national initiatives at foundations like the Annie Casey Foundation and the Mott Foundation. So it was just this collision of all of these experiences all in the pursuit of building up enough power to create change for people who need it.
11:04 Bowman: That's terrific. That's terrific. So I'd like to follow up by, you touched on some things in your journey and your experience that help you do the work that you do today. I often think about also the contributions of people along the way, and I would imagine that in your journey, there were many people who touched you and shaped you and helped you evolve to allow you to do the work that you do now. I'd like to just probe you to talk a little bit about the role of mentoring in your own career, and maybe even in turn, how you from your position think about mentoring the next generation of leaders.
11:51 Allen: What a great question. So I have been mentored by lots of people. My first mentor was my grandmother, who was a black club organizer, and whenever I would say something like, “Grandma, you see that trash out there? Somebody should clean that up.” And she would say, “You're right, but you know you're somebody.” And so her first lesson to me was that, if you have an ambition to complain about something, then you also should have the ambition to do something. But I've also just had lots of both men and women who have been great mentors to me throughout my career. Particularly at the Stillman Foundation, Carol Goss, who was my predecessor and also a University of Michigan alum, really taught me how to lead with grace. I think before I've tried to lead with brute force and that didn’t always work. She taught me really how to be graceful in these moments and to be patient with people and to give some space. That even if you have high ambition, that ambition should never overtake how you show up in terms of thinking about people individually. I also have had just great mentors who have been leaders of corporations who saw in me like talents that were not about whether we were in the same industry, but whether or not they thought that they could be effective, and would give me advice over lunch and different things like that.
But the other thing that they did in that mentorship, DuBois, is that they also offered sponsorship, and sometimes sponsorship is more important than mentorship. Are you basically saying that you will put yourself out, you're lending me or trust, you're lending me your reputation when you sponsor me into a room or into a community or into some space. And that has been a really important part, I think, of my journey. More recently, I've been thinking, I've done a couple of things that have been in leadership positions, and I've noticed in the conversations with some of the organizations or things that I’ve done people have said, “Well, you're the first African American woman to do this”. And my inclination is, I will not be the last one. And I know that Kamala Harris said that, but I also said it too. So I’ve been working more recently, quite honestly, if I'm a Chair of something, I'm lining it up so in the next successions or in the next two successions you'll see people of color in these leadership positions. So that we can stop saying “the first”, “the only” and that we can say that there are opportunities for everybody and you have to just be intentional and creative.
14:55 Bowman: Absolutely, really, really, really powerful. And before transitioning, I want to follow up connecting your final statement. You said it first, we'll get that on the record. But then also tying it to your earlier statement about bringing your own experiences with you in your role, and that if you are sort of honest and sincere to your leadership opportunity, why you, why now, you have to bring all of that. And so will you talk just about the importance as you see it, of diversity on many fronts in leadership generally, and in fact, advancing that goals of your organization and other organizations?
15:42 Allen: Yeah, well, I think that, I think it's important that if we believe that diverse leadership matters then we actually need to show what diversity of leadership looks like. And so if I were to mimic the way that I saw white men lead, then basically, I'm not actually bringing diversity, I'm bringing physical diversity, but not leadership diversity. And so what I attempt to do is to just bring my whole self into that conversation and be comfortable not necessarily with what are the rules of leadership, but what do I think are the rules of people management. How do I understand people? How do I bring my experience in a way that would be convincing to them that this is something we should do?
So I just really think about it from that advantage because then the last thing is, is that we do need diversity of thought. And diversity of thought is not just whether or not you're on one side of the political line. It is really about differences in your professional training, or even if you had professional training, the differences in your lived experiences, the differences of how you view the world because of maybe your race or the color of your skin, and the way that you’ve had to navigate the world, and you might see something different that other people will, and you might value assets in a way that other people don't. And I think we saw an example of that, particularly in the election, where I think you saw people of color who were voters that were actually valued as people and contributors and not just value for what they can do, which is the cast a vote. And that distinction, when you start to value people for who they are and understand that diversity of their experiences and their different viewpoints, it actually makes and enriches you as a leader, as an institution, as a problem-solver. So that's why I'm just a big believer in including diversity in our leadership and making space for it. I always say, diversity should be king.
18:02 Bowman: Absolutely. Well, thank you for those very insightful thoughts and reflections. I'd like to transition a bit to talking about the pandemic. As mentioned in the intro, this has been an incredible year for all of us, and I know it has presented leadership challenges and opportunities. And so the Skillman Foundation serving the children of Detroit, I'd like to ask, how do you advocate for the underserved, but importantly, how has your work shifted this year during the pandemic?
18:40 Allen: Yeah, that's such a great question. At the Skillman Foundation, if we were talking about the foundation or in a meeting or something like that, I'd start by saying, “how are the children?”. And we ask that question because it's rooted in the Massai Tribe who used to ask that question when they would greet each other, and it was basically an equity question. They were basically saying our society is as strong as the people who are the least of or who have the least or may be the weakest. Like your society is defined by the strength of your children. And so that would be the question we would ask any time we were in the room. Now that the pandemic has happened, we have actually been asking a different question, which is, “where are the children?”. And I just think that we don't really understand that there are large numbers of children who are not showing up. They are opting out or their families are opting out of systems, out of schools, out of services, out of picking up food if they need it. And so we really don't have the systems that we need in our society to make sure that families cannot fall through the cracks and no one knows it.
So what we've seen is that kids who tended to be absent from school, and we've defined that as kind of chronically absent, those kids who have missed more than 10 or more days from school, are our kids who are more likely not to show up at all. Maybe they've come to school one day, but they're not signing in on multiple days. And so though we're working on this issue from a public health issue of thinking about how we keep and retain people from being safe from COVID-19, we have spent very little time thinking about how children are faring in their homes. Whether we've heard numbers from our state about the number of sexual assaults with children, the number of child abuse cases have declined mostly because they don't have access, the mandatory reporters are educators, and so this issue of how children show up is really important.
And I have one last thing, because I think it is really important, is that what we're finding is that kids, like last year when we close down schools, kids, we call that the COVID gap. And many of those kids ran into the summer gap where you lose learning and usually kids go backwards, and now we're into a school year where we know that there is really, truly uneven education. And I think that as a society, we have to actually begin to prepare ourselves that many of our children at minimum, will be six months behind even if they're coming from more affluent households and where things are more stabilized. But if you're coming from a community where your family doesn't make enough or may have significant challenges, we're talking about a potentially two-year gap by the time you add those two summers in. And so we have a real issue in front of us as a society about how are we gonna go back and repair the damage from this pandemic to support kids and not just push them through the system and expect them to catch up, because we already know any of these children who are most disadvantaged, they can't catch up. And so adding this extra layer of burnen on them will really prevent them from being as successful as their tallent. Their success won’t match their level of talent and intelligence.
22:52 Bowman: Absolutely, absolutely, and we have to be intentional, as you mentioned, about addressing those emerging inequities. And so pursuing on that theme for a moment, illuminating health inequities will undoubtedly be a legacy of the pandemic, and the pandemic is also revealed inequities in many other areas including as you just described in education. During an interview that I tuned into that you did back in April, you spoke about not letting government leaders take their foot off the gas, and so seven months later, as you just painted a picture of some of the emerging inequities that we're facing, what else needs to be done? How do we need to hold government leaders accountable? And what do you feel the role for cross-sector partnerships play in addressing these inequities?
23:53 Allen: Yeah, so I think that, so when all of this was happening, and particularly when it was happening and we saw how hard it hit Detroit and other urban areas, and particularly to your point DuBois about people of color, because I hit black folks and his Hispanic folks depending on whichever geography you were in, and what I felt very strongly about was that we were ready to distribute accolades for people who acknowledge that it was harming a certain group of people, and I wanted us to hold our accolades until they started doing something about preventing it from harming a group of people. So I think I'll give you one quick example and I think we need to do more of this. Brian Stevenson, he used this notion of what does reparation mean, and I love his definition, which is simply to repair the harm. And what I've been hoping that we would see from government and from other leaders in general, is how do we repair the harm? How do we go beyond what we believe will actually fix the problem? And usually what we do is we offer a little bit of what we think might alleviate some of the pain and I think it's time for us to move beyond that. And this pandemic has shown us that. And it's also shown us that this country is equipped to do it. So when we look at the stimulus packages that came through, the CARES package, all those different ways that the government showed up, sending individual checks to people, suspending fees for health insurance or different ways...if we could do that for the pandemic, then why can't we do those things to have a thriving society? And that's what I mean about we need to be pushing hard now. That's great, you did it. Now tell me, how are you gonna sustain it? And how do we help you sustain it? It's not just your responsibility, it's our collective responsibility.
26:05 Bowman: Absolutely, absolutely. So in addition to the challenges that we have all faced in some of the complex issues that we've been discussing that have been brought to light during a pandemic, many have tried to look for opportunities, maybe things that we've discovered during this time that might be beneficial as tools moving forward. I'd like to ask just in terms of your leadership role that's within the foundation or maybe even on behalf of the work that your foundation pursues, can you point to anything that you see as opportunities moving forward that have been brought to light during this challenging time?
26:48 Allen: Yeah, I think they’re, you know what's that old adage that there is opportunity in crisis? And I don't actually know if it's true that they say the Chinese sign for crisis, part of the words mean opportunity. I don't know, but I like to believe that's true. And here’s what I would say, is that I think that we have lots of systems that have figured out that the way that they've done things do not work. And instead of trying to tinker around with those systems, how do we help them isolate what those problems are and think about is there are new way of doing business. And I talked about power, the ability to rewrite the rules. Our systems are nothing but a set of rules, and most people who have the power to change those rules don't actually understand that they do. And so this is a time for us to remind them that they have the ability to rewrite the rules, to shift and to change the policies that are affecting people in negative ways. And then I think particularly in education and healthcare where we've gone to this remote system in which we also know is a less expensive way of delivering education or delivering health care, why wouldn't we be looking to exploit the opportunities there?
So an example of that is in Detroit, we worked on a project called Connected Futures. The goal of this project initially was schools are closed, how do we get 60 thousand plus kids connected laptops into their homes? And how do we figure out how to continue school? If we were just trying to solve that problem, it would be an expensive solution. But then when we started to talk to people in workforce development and in government and people who have resources and benefits that could get to families, how do you begin to compile all of that into the technology, how do you make sure that parents and young people are trained to be able to use that for both school and also for personal needs or other resources that help them? Now we're actually starting to exploit the opportunity to solve more than one problem with the one solution, with a singular solution. So I think there are more opportunities like that, and I think we have to push for them and really demand that. And I know it's tough for people right now, because people are stretched just trying to figure out how to transition from pre-COVID to COVID, now we gotta move from COVID to post-COVID and post-COVID has to be better than pre-COVID.
29:48 Bowman: So for many leaders, the pandemic, addressing some of these issues that you've been discussing, has come forward with the relentless pace of just challenging activity. I know for myself, the sense of time even seemed to be warped during the last several months, and I can only imagine how busy your schedule has been during that time. And so I'd like to just inquire about the leadership lessons that you've learned. In particular, if you can talk about the importance of self-care that has become more apparent during this time.
30:30 Allen: Yeah, it's amazing to me how time goes faster when you're sitting in one room than it did when you moved all around. And I would just say, I often say that sleep is a leadership trait. And what I mean by that simply is, is like for me, if I don't sleep, I'm not my best self. I'm not a good leader. I don't show up listening to people, hearing people, supporting people in an adequate way. I just lose my patience and I actually even lose my vocabulary. It’s really hilarious when I don't get sleep. But the point that I'm making is, is by saying that taking care of myself is a leadership trait, then I take it from more seriously than just about like, “Oh, this is this something I choose to do for myself”, or “is this something that I choose to do for the people around me?”. It's kind of like a mask. Like not all of us want to wear a mask for ourselves, but we do it because we wanna protect those around us and the people that they love and care about. And so that's what I really believe. In this moment we need to be thinking about what are the traits that actually make us stronger and better leaders, and also how do we take care of ourselves, because my mother used to say this to me on the time, she used to say, “You can't take care of others before you take care of yourself”. Now of course, when she was saying it to me and I was younger, I completely ignored her. It took me 40 years to figure out that it was such wisdom in those words that we have to take care of ourselves if we wanna take care of others. And that's our responsibility, I think, as leaders.
37:16 Bowman: And so you've mentioned some things that you've recognized to make you your best in the challenging job that you have and leading your organization forward. How do you spread that message within your organization at a time where there's a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done as a leader? You lead a high-functioning foundation, people step up and do the work, and you still need to deliver, but to give people permission, if you will, to help people to understand that it's okay to take care of oneself in the process, because after all the complex work that we're doing, probably resembles much more of a marathon than it does a sprint.
33:05 Allen: Yeah, absolutely, and you're absolutely right. So we've done lots of different things at the Foundation. One is we just gave people time off. Like take more time off. I know you're not going anywhere, but it's really important for you to disconnect. And we were checking on all of our people pretty regularly. How are you doing? What's going on? If people needed time, we just basically said, “look, we need you to take the time”. That's the most important thing. And we've also integrated, I think, in our work day, all kinds of things. So from even pre-pandemic, we used to call this thing we do on Thursday, Therapy Thursday, because it was like therapy but it wasn't really therapy, but we would have fun together. And so we've integrated yoga and meditation into our work day where people can take an hour, take a half an hour, to actually relieve themselves of some of the stress and the trauma that they are experiencing so that they could show up as their best selves, not just for us, but for their families. We don't want them to be stressed and that stress, because you're literally were living at work now, we don't want that stress to permeate your home, because that doesn't do well for us or the foundation, nor does it keep our team together, nor does it keep us high functioning. So those are some practices that we looked at DuBois that I think have been really useful.
34:41 Bowman: Terrific. So your experiences highlight I think the importance of resilience as a leader, and I'd like to now actually shift and focus more squarely on that theme of resilience. And we've talked about COVID-19 and the challenges brought forth over the last several months, but we've also as a society, continued to face manifestations of persistent racism. And those two topics are not mutually exclusive, linking it to some of the disparities that were revealed. And so I just want to ask you, during this period, what has been your most challenging decision or moment as a leader, as we shift to this topic of resilience?
35:31 Allen: I'll tell you my most challenging tension during this period. So yes, work too hard, do too many things, all that is always a part of it. But my biggest challenge was that I agreed to serve as the chair for the Governor's return to school commission. And this was important work. How do we return our children back to school safely? There was nothing more important for a children’s foundation leader to do than that. And after I made that commitment, of course, what happens is basically the uprisings all across the country after the senseless murders of George Floyd, and Ahmaud and Breonna, of the most recent killings. And I was in this position where I literally had to give all my time to one of the most challenging and important topics for 15 million children in the state of Michigan, and my heart was saying, I need to be spending my time and attention and thinking about how as a city and a state that we begin to really wrestle with these issues of racial inequities and how do we usher in racial justice at that particular time. And so that probably, I carried more weight feeling like I was...I could not split my time appropriately to do the two things that I felt were the most important things for me to do. So I eventually had to just settle with I gotta do one thing at a time, and I gotta do each of them well and with excellence. And so I just doubled down and dug in on getting kids back to school in a safe manner. And that of course, lingered longer and continues to linger as the numbers have gone, but now I've really put my attention to how do we build our communities capacity to really think about what does equity mean and how do we actually usher it into our community in a systematic way that will undermine and undo all of these systemic barriers that have essentially harmed black people, people of color, Indigenous people in significant ways.
38:05 Bowman: Terrific. So I know that you know this, but your time was very well invested. There can't be two of you. I happen to have actually two school-aged children here in Michigan, I thank you for your efforts and the opportunities and the challenge and the struggle will continue on the other front. So there will be many ways that your leadership will continue to be beneficial.
38:26 Allen: Thank you.
38:28 Bowman: So continuing on the topic of resilience, one of the other factors that comes up is risk taking. And I think the biggest advances often require that we as leaders take risks and bring our organizations along to taking risks. And I just want to probe a little bit about how you approach those decisions, how do you decide which risks are the right ones to take, and then if you encounter adversity in those decisions, how you remain resilient.
39:10 Allen: Yeah, that's a great question. So I tend to be more on the risk taker side, and just in general, that is. But the way I look at it is, is this good for everyone? Is it doable and achievable? And then if we fail, what would be the worst thing that would happen? And so those are kind of like the scenarios that I run through my head, and when I'm running them through my head, I'm also talking out loud with other people about it. If you are out there taking risks by yourself, then it's usually not the right risk, right? And so what I attempt to do is to hear what people are thinking about, what the different risks are, and really inform me of my decision of how I would go about doing it. And I'll tell you this, my whole thing is, is if you can take a risk, if you're gonna fail, but if you're gonna fail, if you can fail forward, meaning that you're gonna learn from this, it puts you in a better position to tackle this issue again, I don't think there's a downside from that other than a bruised ego. I say go for it. Right? Because it's not about you, it's about moving the work forward. And now you know how to do one, two, three, four steps already because you did them the first time, and now you know you gotta change steps five and six so that you can get to step ten, that's a bet I’ll take any day. And I think that's part of it. Failure does not mean that you are a failure. It means that you did not succeed implementing that task this time, not the next.
41:01 Bowman: Absolutely. Do you feel that the disposition that you just described is that you? Do you think that is you plus, it was fostered somehow in your upbringing and your early experiences, or maybe even a mentorship?
41:22 Allen: I don't know, I think it’s may be a little bit more me than it is probably mentored around that, but I would just say that most of the risks that I take are not oriented for me for my personal gain. So I feel a lot more braver in doing something for other people. I feel a lot more courageous in doing things that I think will benefit more, a collective of people, rather than doing something for myself. And I think that that actually equips me with the boldness and also knowing that you sometimes look and you think and you see leaders and you say, “Well, why wouldn't they just do this?” And it's because they're usually doing the calculus of whether or not it's gonna make them look good or not, or what will people say about them. And I guess when you went to nine schools as a child, you know that people are going to say plenty of things about you, and that's not what drives you, how people view you, what prides you is what you can accomplish and what the impact you want to achieve.
42:33 Bowman: Absolutely, absolutely. Alright, so transitioning now to just the last question, that there are aspects of our daily lives of things of national significance that transcend the work that we do, and this includes as one example, last week's election, and you commented on this earlier during our discussion. Last week, many people were glued to their televisions and phones watching election results come in, and for many, this election season, and perhaps the political climate more broadly, has been unlike any other in recent history. I read with interest a powerful statement that you released this week and titled, “A house divided cannot stand”. And it touches on a message that has biblical connections, it's come up in really, really important times throughout our history, and I wanna just ask you to elaborate a little bit on your thoughts about things that you think will be really, really critical for you and your organization for us as a society as we prepare to move forward during this time.
44:00 Allen: Yeah. No, thank you for that. I'll tell you, I read an article, a research paper many years ago, which actually talked about the most effective communities. And what this basically said was that the most effective communities, the communities, that got things done more for their people than any place else, where the communities that were not driven by national politics or partisanship rights, they were places that said, we're gonna put the best interests of our people first, and then of course we will do our political thing, but that's not gonna drive our behavior or our commitment to each other. And quite honestly, that's the most American thing I can think of. Is that as a country, we were founded by a set of imperfect men who were in pursuit of a more perfect union, and our inheritance as citizens of this country is to continually work to perfect it. And I think that when we look at how politics and how divisive and vitriolic the elections were and you’re listening to politics, they're telling you very clearly that we are divided, that we don't have anything in common, that we are working against each other. And I just do not believe that. I believe that when we look at any data that tells us about how Americans show up, the first thing we say is that we need to be and we want to be more unified. And then it starts to say, we want to have a strong agenda for our children, we wanna have strong businesses in our community, we wanna have great jobs for everyone. Now we might disagree on how we get to that, but we can't be distracted by that. And we cannot thrive as a country, we cannot solve these problems if we're not working together. And I think it's time for us to just call on each other and remind each other that it is really our responsibility, particularly as leaders, to be looking for the common ground, the common agenda, because we have painted futures before us and it's our responsibility, and I think I said in that piece that the future isn't finished, and we owe it to our ancestors, and we owe it to our children and to those who are yet to be born to figure this out. I was going to curse, I’m glad I didn’t.
46:45 Bowman: Speak from the heart. So we're just about out of time now for our first episode of Ahead of the Curve, and Tonya, I want to thank you so sincerely for your time for being gracious enough to participate in this kick off of it for us at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. I really, really appreciate your thoughts, your heartfelt reflections, your leadership, and comments about self-care and resiliency. So we'll be making this recording available in a few places, including our University of Michigan School of Public Health website, should you wanna share it with others or visit to view it again or missed portions. We’ll also be making it available through a podcast series that we have here at the School of Public Health. The podcast series is called Population Healthy. I encourage you to check it out and subscribe wherever you listen to your podcast. And then we'll be back soon with another edition of Ahead of the Curve. Thank you all in terms of the viewers and participants, again for joining us. Tonya, again, thank you, really, really delighted to have you. And to all be safe and stay well and go blue.