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Q&A: Natalie Burke, president and CEO of CommonHealth ACTION

Feb 26, 2018

Natalie Burke is president and CEO of CommonHealth ACTION, a nonprofit that works with organizations to promote health through equitable, diverse and inclusive policies. Burke spoke with Interact about how CommonHealth ACTION helps the entities it works with make equity part of their daily practice.

Interact for Health: Can you explain more about CommonHealth ACTION and its goals?

Natalie Burke: We started CommonHealth ACTION in 2004 to help leaders within organizations bring an equity lens into their daily practice. We focus primarily on three areas. First, we develop leaders through formal leadership institutes. The second area is in curriculum development -- training and education that focuses on equity, diversity and inclusion. Our last primary area of focus is on strategy, planning and implementation of activities focused on equity, diversity and inclusion.

You cannot get to health, quality of life and wellbeing without being equitable, diverse and inclusive. Any time we can permeate the culture, influence the leadership, help to bring equity into strategy, we are doing public health work.

Interact for Health: Can you share an example of CommonHealth ACTION's work and the positive results you have seen?

Burke: CommonHealth ACTION has worked with the HIP-Cuyahoga partnership out of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, for several years. We have worked with them to develop a common language around topics of interest; develop equitable leaders; develop and implement a communications strategy for equity; train the board of health's workforce and their partners in the community to apply an equity lens to their decisions behaviors and actions; and chart a path forward by developing a value-driven policy agenda that supports equitable health outcomes.

What makes HIP-Cuyahoga's efforts so exciting is that they have stayed the course despite the challenging nature of the work and we have had the honor of being partners and at times their trusted guide on the journey to equity, diversity and inclusion.

Interact for Health: What lessons have you learned as president and CEO of CommonHealth ACTION?

Burke: A not-for-profit is a business, first and foremost, and I have to look at it and think of it as a business. I'm an entrepreneur, but I'm a self-taught entrepreneur. Over a period of 14 years, I've realized that it's critically important to ask myself what it is I should be learning about the challenge I face today, and in facing that challenge, what should I be learning about myself.

Interact for Health: What accomplishments are you most proud of at CommonHealth ACTION?

Burke: When I think about some of the toughest work we've done, it's where the resistance has been at the highest levels of the organization; where leaders say they are supportive of this idea of bringing an equity lens into their work, but at the same time, feel vulnerable. I think what we've figured out how to do really well is work with leaders who are remarkably resistant, and over time show them that not only is it a moral imperative, but from a business perspective, it will make them bigger, faster, stronger smarter and better.

Interact for Health: What about your work excites you or is most fulfilling?

Burke: I think the sense that I'm able to help make the world a better place is important to me. I also think that every single day, I'm challenged to learn something new and different that stretches me.

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