Catherine West, MPA: A Hand in All the Pots

    • October 15, 2013

The beach beckoned to most of Catherine West’s friends during spring break of their senior year at Brown University in Providence, R.I., but West was ready to launch her career. The adventuresome young woman flew out to California and started laying the groundwork for finding a job. “I wanted to explore, see what the West Coast was all about,” she says.

One informational interview led to the next, and West was soon on the staff of FACES for the Future, a program at Children’s Hospital & Research Center in Oakland, Calif. Started by two physicians of color, FACES introduces youth from disadvantaged communities to career opportunities in health care and provides academic enrichment and leadership development to help them succeed.

As she coordinated clinical internships for the resilient young people who had been accepted to FACES, West also learned what it takes to run a grassroots program. Always forward-looking, she says, “I wanted to know what it was like to run a program so that later on in life, when I was making broader decisions that would have broad impact, I would remember what it was like to implement things on the ground.”

New Connections at RWJF. After four years at FACES, while participating in a Kellogg Foundation fellowship, West was ready to reach for new experiences. The National Urban Fellows Master of Public Administration (MPA) Fellowship appealed because it packed so much learning and practice into 14 months of leadership training, including both a graduate degree and a nine-month mentorship assignment. (Read the Progress Report to learn more about the program.)

West was accepted in 2007 and assigned a mentorship at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), where she worked on New Connections: Increasing Diversity of RWJF Programming under the direction of her mentor Debra Joy Pérez, PhD, MA, MPA, former assistant vice president for Research and Evaluation at RWJF. The national program fosters new relationships between the Foundation and scholars from underrepresented groups, and informs RWJF strategy with more diverse perspectives.

“I was able to really manage the program from a day-to-day perspective, but also help strengthen it, expand it, replicate it,” said West. “I had my hands in all the pots, it was a great learning opportunity, a great leadership opportunity.”

West also helped to apply the New Connections model to two other RWJF national programs, Active Living Research and Healthy Eating Research, which fund researchers to translate and disseminate evidence to help prevent childhood obesity and promote active communities. “We partnered with them to support researchers who represent historically underrepresented research communities working in those fields,” explained West. “I learned a lot about what makes New Connections successful and what the core components are that we can replicate.”

As if that was not enough to keep her busy, West also was a member and co-lead for the Diversity Subcommittee for RWJF’s Human Capital team, which gave her another opportunity to think creatively about how to draw fresh perspectives into RWJF.

West found her colleagues open and approachable. RWJF staff, she says, “treated us as equals, as peers, as colleagues, and had us at the decision-making table when they were deciding on grants. I really felt respected and trusted.”

She continued this work after her Fellowship ended—first as a consultant for the Human Capital team, for which she did an assessment of their scholars’ and fellows’ programs and then as a program consultant for the RWJF national program Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders. She remains engaged with Community Health Leaders to this day.

Stints in the private and public sectors. After earning her MPA through the National Urban Fellows program, West contemplated next steps with her usual deliberate approach. “When I finish each job, I look at where the gaps are in my experience,” she says.

Only in her mid-20s, West had already worked in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, and was well-versed in research and evaluation. But she had not yet been exposed to the corporate world. “When I thought of collaborations, I thought ‘There are a lot of people at the table, but who is missing?’ Business is missing. I knew business was there, I knew they were doing good work... I wanted to learn how corporate thinks, how they view communities, how they approach problems and view solutions.”

West had to do some navigating to make a “sector jump” into business, but in 2008 she was hired by Gilead Sciences, Inc., a California-based pharmaceutical company that focuses on unmet medical needs, as senior manager of government affairs. In that capacity, she administered the launch of a 10-city national initiative designed to make HIV testing a routine part of medical care, in line with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Like RWJF, Gilead put numerous and varied responsibilities in her hands. “I had the opportunity to work with hospitals and clinics and nonprofits in these 10 cities, so I drew a lot on what I had learned at RWJF about community-level change, measuring results, defining what success is,” West explains. “For me, this was a different kind of grantmaking, it was more solicited partnerships. I learned how to aim high, go right to the top and talk to the decision-makers. I learned how you blend policy and grantmaking to affect change.”

Four years later, West made another career move, heading this time to the public sector. Since 2012, she has been at the Center for Health Information and Analysis in Boston, serving as both director of External Research and as director of Health Systems Policy and Stakeholder Relations. “This is sort of the 2.0 of health care reform,” she explains. “How do you drive down costs while maintaining quality? All the plans and providers report their data to us, so we have an amazing view of the health care system in Massachusetts.”

West’s job is to help translate data so that it is useful to payers, providers, consumers, government agencies and others, and to build partnerships along the way. “Our vision is to be a hub for the state—connecting people, ideas and resources,” she says.

Getting heard. West’s taste for varied experiences may be in her blood. Born in Saudi Arabia to an American mother and a Trinidadian father, she has some Black, Indian, Chinese, English, Irish, and French ancestry. “I am often asked if I am Mexican or Dominican or Indian or White or Egyptian or Middle Eastern,” she says. “It has been a really interesting life experience to work with a variety of people and backgrounds and see how they perceive me and how they perceive race in America.”

Adding to the richness of her experience, West was raised by a single mother who worked two jobs so that her daughter could attend private Catholic school. When she was 11, West herself started working. Her mom, she says, “has always been my biggest champion and supporter. She encouraged me to apply to Brown when my guidance counselor told me not to bother. She always instilled in me this love of learning and aiming high.”

Despite her apparent confidence, West’s navigation toward progressively more leadership responsibility has not been obstacle-free. “The challenges are all about perception—will people think less of what I have to say because I am a woman or a person of color or because I am young? There are a lot of institutional barriers that maintain the status quo.”

West has noticed that a predictable power dynamic plays itself out in many settings. “I think you can watch any room and if a white male speaks, people look at him and he commands more attention than if a woman speaks, or a woman of color. That is always something I have been mindful of.”

People who have been historically excluded from decision-making roles have to be especially determined and strategic, she believes. “You feel you have to compensate for it and work that much harder and be that much more on top of your game. That goes throughout your whole career.”

Learning the unspoken rules. West has also learned that mastering unspoken rules is one of the ingredients to success. “They don’t teach you that in school. It is one of the things that you need mentors to teach you... As you advance in your career, there are more and more unspoken rules.” Learning how to behave, how to interact with colleagues, and how to build relationships ultimately determines “how you get influence,” she says.

Someone has to explain the rules to people who don’t come from the communities in which they are modeled. “I do think it is more critical for people of color because the rules are passed down and shared and if you don’t have the person to connect you to that, you are at a loss. You are operating as best as you can, you are dressed professionally, but there are certain things you don’t know.”

West’s mentors, who included Pérez, shared their “insider’s” view with her. And just as they did, West now tries to do the same for others. “There are many who have come before us and many who will come after, but each of us in our own way is a leader,” she says. “Often times, we are the first, or the only, or one of the few, whether it is diversity in philanthropy or diversity in corporate America.”

West guides two interns at the Center for Health Information and Analysis, and also serves as a founding board member of the Chica Project, a leadership mentoring program for young Latinas in Boston; a founding board member of the Philanthropy Connection, an organization to encourage more women to engage in philanthropy; and on the Board of Directors of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.

“To me, it is very important, as we advance in our careers, that we bring people with us, either formally through internships or informally through mentoring,” West says. “When you look at board diversity in Fortune 500 companies, it is less than 5 percent. When you look at leadership in the health care sectors, it is still very small. As much as we have already achieved, there is still a lot of work to be done.”

RWJF perspective. RWJF began serving as a National Urban Fellows mentorship site in 2005, and has supported between two and four fellows every year since, mostly at RWJF but some at other connected health-related organizations. In 2010, RWJF began funding the Health Policy Advocacy and Education Initiative at National Urban Fellows to weave a public health component into the 14-month program for all MPA program participants.

“The issue of diversity is really important to the Foundation; we see it as a core value in the work we do,” said Pérez. A National Urban Fellows alumnus herself, Pérez considers the initiative a natural opportunity to introduce more diversity into RWJF. “We believe that having folks at the table who represent folks in the communities in which we work is a critical part of the equation. It enhances the work that we do.” The investment also reflects RWJF’s commitment to draw more people of color into philanthropy and create a pipeline for diverse leaders, especially in the public and nonprofit sectors.

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Spotlight on Catherine West: Taught that unspoken rules are key to success, she passes lesson on to others