Four Enduring Life Lessons from a Career in Public Health

Feb 17, 2016, 10:30 AM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

New York City’s new deputy mayor for health and human services shares how inspirational mentors and rich experiences have cultivated her career.

Herminia Palacio speaks at the RWJF Scholars Forum 2014.

She was abruptly awakened by a phone call at 5:00 in the morning as Hurricane Katrina was ravaging New Orleans. Evacuees were fleeing the devastation and arriving in Houston by the tens of thousands to escape. Herminia Palacio was then the executive director of Houston’s Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services. She had until 11:00 p.m. to figure out how to care for them.

Herminia rose to the challenge. Within 12 hours, she and her colleagues set up a shelter at the Houston Astrodome that triaged 65,000 Katrina evacuees and ultimately housed 27,000 of them. Working with city, county and federal agencies, Herminia led the effort to set up the medical branch for that shelter, with activities ranging from mass-immunizations to maintaining safe sanitation.

It’s clear that Hermina Palacio, New York City’s new Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, is not a stranger to facing the most daunting of public health challenges. Her experiences have shaped her into a formidable leader, and she brought these keen insights to her work as director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Advancing Change Leadership team, where she commanded efforts to launch groundbreaking new change leadership programs.

Before leaving RWJF last month to pursue her new post in New York City, Herminia imparted some timeless life lessons and stories about seasoned colleagues and mentors that have shaped her path.

1.  Be unconditionally present for others and heed the call to serve

During her time as an RWJF Harold Amos scholar, Herminia was deeply influenced by the wisdom and humility of the program’s trailblazing leadership – James Gavin and Levi Watkins.

James Gavin, the program director, was an extremely accomplished person in every aspect. Herminia fondly recalls that “no matter what your status, he was totally present for the conversation he had with you. He was not scanning the room to find who was more important. I will always cherish those moments with him.”

Similarly, “Levi Watkins, who recently passed away, used to insist that no matter what stage we were at in our careers, we had a responsibility to reach behind us and help others along. We couldn’t simply wait until we arrived at our destination to help people. We needed to be reaching back at every rung in our journeys. His words instilled a sense of responsibility to address equity – not just as a broad principle – but in what we do on a daily basis. I was deeply inspired to heed Levi Watkins’ call to serve.”

2. Align people across sectors by finding a common mission and purpose.

One of the biggest challenges public health officials face is aligning people across disciplines and sectors and from disparate points of view. Herminia notes that a key to aligning different sides is approaching people respectfully, acknowledging that they always bring something to the table that you don’t, and clarifying the common mission and purpose.  There will not always be agreement on every issue. But that shouldn’t stop aggressive pursuit of common areas.

“People can often align behind mission and purpose. You need to be able to flex and look for opportunities where you can align your work with the clarity of mission and purpose that the other side brings...ask yourself how you can contribute to their mission as well. “

Herminia shared a story that illustrated this point. “There was a grant that our council of governments had in Harris County called ‘Sustainable Communities’ to address childhood obesity on a county-wide basis. The council had invited me to give a talk with an urban planner. We’d been working together closely but didn’t discuss our talks in advance since we were so busy. And it was the funniest thing because without any preplanning, I gave a talk about the built environment and his presentation focused on health. We apparently influenced each other to the point that we became spokespeople for each other’s disciplines, rather than staying in our own lanes.”

3. Personal relationships drive action

Herminia notes that a lot of public health work gets done in the context of human relationships; organizations can’t form relationships by themselves. “Institutional memory develops around relationships once people do the hard work of forming those bonds in the first place. Then you can have relationships between organizations that supersede and live beyond the people. That’s what we would strive for...to change organizational cultures so there is a deep and abiding respect for what others can contribute to the same problems you are trying to solve.”

4. Don’t take yourself so seriously

“This may seem hard to believe...but one day you’re going to find this stuff...amusing.” These were the earnest words that an influential friend and mentor – Ruth Greenblat at the University of California San Francisco – shared when Herminia encountered the sort of troubling political obstacles that materialize at almost any organization. Herminia notes that she’s hung onto this piece of wisdom, which helps her move past the “nonsense” and get directly to the work that needs to get done. We all have to face “stuff” in our lives. While some of it feels important in the heat of the moment, it actually distracts you from doing what needs to get done. Ruth’s timeless advice has helped Herminia avoid taking herself too seriously and move past the “nonsense” to focusing on the critical task at hand.