Carolyn Wang Kong is the Chief Program Director at the Blue Shield of California Foundation. As a part of our Member Spotlight Series, Carolyn spoke to us about where she is seeking collaboration, why time travel would be her ideal superpower, and details on her favorite guilty pleasure.
How’d you get started in this work?
I grew up as a child interpreter for my family members who were non-English speaking, interpreting for them during doctors’ visits and seeing things that a typical 8-year old should not see. I witnessed first-hand how my grandparents were essentially cast aside by a health care system that couldn’t speak their language and didn’t prioritize understanding their culture – and it was not OK. It all came to a head for me when, as a young adult, I found myself interpreting for my grandmother in an operating room during a surgical procedure where she was awake and needed to follow instructions. I was furious about the discrimination we experienced, and that fury propelled me into a career that has since been focused on ensuring that everyone has access to health and opportunity, regardless of their language, culture, gender, or any other dimensions that make up our humanity.
Are you new in your role? Been there a while?
I’ve been at the Foundation since 2015 and was recently promoted from Senior Program Officer to Chief Program Director. In my past work at the Foundation, I led our Collaborating for Healthy Communities initiative, which is focused on both building capacity for organizations and systems to engage in multi-sector collaborations that drive systems change. The problems we’re trying to solve – poor health and domestic violence – are complex and therefore, cannot be solved by one sector alone. The sectors that influence the upstream drivers of these problems, like education, public safety, health, housing, and business must come to the table, be willing to change their own systems, and collaborate with others in order to drive sustainable change.
Tell us what you do in your work (pretend I’m a fifth-grader).
I actually have a fifth grader, so this question works for me. My job is to work with a super smart team of people to come up with ideas that will help to make everyone in California healthier and safe so they can grow up and have the opportunity to be and do what they dream to do. Sometimes the ideas we come up with are about creating something new, like a new way to help people get jobs so they can buy healthy food or have safe homes. Sometimes the ideas are about helping different people in communities work together to solve a hard problem or make their community better so that people can be healthy and safe. The best part of my work is when we can share solutions that have worked for some and help others who might have the same problem.
Where are you inviting collaboration these days?
Our Foundation has gone “all in” on prevention, and we’ve realized the landscape there is much bigger and diverse – which is exciting! Since our inception, we have been laser-focused on ending domestic violence and improving access and innovation in the health care safety net. We have deep knowledge and expertise of the domestic violence and health care systems, and as a result, we have a keen sense of what drives violence in the home and what drives poor health in communities. So, it’s exciting to now act on that knowledge in a new way, encouraging players and changemakers from outside of these sectors to join with us in achieving a shared goal of improving health, safety and opportunity in our state. It’s an incredibly interesting time for us with a new governor and new state leaders who are equally focused on the topics we care about – a family and community focus to health, with economic mobility as a key driver; multi-generational “life course” approaches to ending violence and trauma, and promoting gender equity.
We’re also very curious about the role of data in driving prevention. Data is often used to determine payments or incentives for systems. But how do we know that the data is telling a complete story and one that community would corroborate? How can we ensure that data is used to drive incentives that are based on meeting the needs defined by communities and not just the needs defined by systems?
Lastly, as we encourage multi-sector collaboration in the field, I would also love to collaborate with other funders, outside of the health sector, to explore how we might pool our resources and insights to drive innovation in tackling the root causes our state’s most complex issues. How might we break from our own silos to leverage our respective networks and influence in service of the root causes that ultimately impact health?
What’s your favorite on-screen guilty pleasure (YouTube channel, Netflix, network show etc.).
My colleagues at the Foundation would be disappointed if I didn’t answer this question, because I have a fascination with the Great British Baking Show. It’s not just that watching the show has increased my technical baking knowledge (did you know that dampfnudel could be sweet or savory?), or the serenity of watching English people bake in a fancy tent in the English countryside, it’s mostly because the contestants are always very diverse and strangely supportive of each other. Who doesn’t love no drama baking?
What talent or superpower would you most like to have?
Time travel. On the personal side, I’ve come to appreciate how much it means to know where you come from and who you come from. I would love to go back in time to see what life was like for my grandparents and great grandparents. War and migration defined their generations and I would have loved to see what life was like for them before those sentinel events shaped their future trajectories. On the professional side, the moment that we are in today demands that we draw lessons from our past. How did important movements get triggered, how did they evolve to lead to systems changes and what can we learn from those movements to feed the movements of our present and future?
Do you have questions for Carolyn or ideas for collaboration? You can contact her at: