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Dominic Cappello: “To risk and step up in the face of adversity and protect the vulnerable”

Every day I hear from heroes committed to social justice and working to create cities, towns, and communities where all residents have access to the vital services that provide health, safety, and training for jobs that align with the future job market. Once we get 33 counties working in New Mexico with 100% Community, there […]


Every day I hear from heroes committed to social justice and working to create cities, towns, and communities where all residents have access to the vital services that provide health, safety, and training for jobs that align with the future job market. Once we get 33 counties working in New Mexico with 100% Community, there are just about 3000 more counties to go across the nation. It’s all very doable as heroes exist in each of our 50 struggling states.


As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dominic Cappello.

Cappello is a New York Times bestselling author with decades of experience advocating for public health, safety, and systems of care. An advocate for continuous quality improvement in the public sectors, he promotes a data-driven, cross-sector, and technology-empowered county capacity-building process. Cappello is also the co-author, with Dr. Ortega Courtney, of 100% Community: Ensuring 10 Vital Services for Surviving and Thriving to guide local leadership in every state and county in their work designing fully-resourced cities and towns where vital services like health care, among ten surviving and thriving services, meet the needs of all families and community members. He and Dr. Courtney are also co-authors of Anna, Age Eight: The data-driven prevention of childhood trauma and maltreatment, which serves as an urgently needed call-to-action for each state to end adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), trauma, social adversity and health disparities. Cappello worked for the New Mexico Department of Health Epidemiology and Response Division and the New Mexico Child Protective Services Research, Assessment, and Data Bureau, where he co-developed the Data Leaders for Child Welfare program, which he implemented in New York City, Connecticut, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. Cappello has a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies with an emphasis in Language and Communication from Regis University. He is the creator of the Ten Talks book series on family health and safety that gained a national audience when he discussed his work on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Cappello also curated Santa Fe’s first public TEDx conference to showcase technology and socially-engaged solutions to all our public health and safety challenges.

The Anna, Age Eight Institute’s work is heroic, in that our mission of ensuring that every child, parent, grandparent, and community member has access to the ten vital services for surviving and thriving, is made possible by courage, daring and bravery. We are confronting many leaders who believe that struggling people should fix themselves without help. Amid a pandemic and economic free, where everyone is vulnerable, we offer an alternative, working toward a future when everyone has the resources to be healthy, nurtured, educated, and contribute within a caring community.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew in Costa Mesa, California, a working-class town perched near the Pacific Ocean an hour south of Long Beach. I lived in a less than stable household in an apartment with a twin sister, older sister, a mom struggling with mental health challenges, and heard via a letter from a dad who worked in Indonesia. On the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) survey measuring how much abuse and neglect I endured, I scored a 5 out of 10. My first job, while working in high school, was as Captain Hook at Disneyland.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I had a copy of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll with the classic John Tenniel illustrations that gave me an escape into a fantasy world and inspired me to experiment with cartooning.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Sit. Sit. Sit. has been my mantra after reading the book Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck. What I loved about the book is that matter the challenge, Beck had only one piece of advice: Sit and meditate. For a guy who overthought everything deeply, always preparing for worst-case scenarios, I found great comfort in just stilling my mind by sitting peacefully.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

The Anna, Age Eight Institute, which I co-founded with Dr. Katherine Ortega Courtney, is using a data-driven, cross-sector, and technology-empowered strategy to ensure that timely medical care and nine other services for surviving and thriving are accessible to 100% of New Mexicans. The Institute is guided by research focused on the social determinants of health, health equity, health disparities, historical trauma adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and social justice, provides to each county’s elected leaders and stakeholders the tools to identify gaps in vital services and fix them.

The Institute’s work is guided by the book 100% Community: Ensuring 10 Vital Services for Surviving and Thriving, detailing how to implement a statewide plan, county by county, for ensuring local crisis readiness, and access to the survival services of medical care, behavioral health care, food security programs, housing security and transportation. With survival services secured, we then work to ensure the services for thriving that include parent support, early childhood learning programs, community schools, youth mentors, and job training.

In our 100% Community book and initiative, we promote working in alignment with local leaders to ensure that COVID-19 recovery means we take care of one another. Everyone. Everywhere. The economic disruption has played havoc with families and all our vulnerable populations in both rural and urban centers.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

To risk and step up in the face of adversity and protect the vulnerable.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero”? Please share a story or example for each.

Courage, compassion, critical thinking, commitment, and creativity make a hero. In a pandemic and economic free fall, I had the honor of connecting with Matt Probst, a medical director over twenty clinics in rural New Mexico. He embodies all the qualities I mentioned and has used his position to mobilize his entire country, focus on creating ten action teams focused on ensuring the ten vital services for surviving and thriving. His 100% Community initiative is the model for New Mexico and the nation. What impresses me so much about Matt is his capacity to see both the big picture related to social justice and his tenderness when working one on one with a struggling resident.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

I have witnessed what I would call people having an epiphany. A light bulb goes off, the veil is lifted and it is no longer possible for a person to sit passively and watch corruption and complete incompetence. Heroes have no choice but to act.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

I was working for child welfare with my colleague Dr. Ortega Courtney in a dark basement office for child welfare — especially the research, assessment, and data bureau of child protective services. We heard of a horrific case of a mother kicking her child to death. This was a child that has been in and out of the child welfare system eight times. We decided at that moment to write a book, exposing the systemic problems within child welfare. This led to the publication of our book Anna, Age Eight: The data-driven prevention of childhood trauma and maltreatment.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

As we launch our 100% Community initiative across New Mexico, we are blessed to work with heroes taking on leadership of the projects. They have done so without compensation and they face local leaders who are not convinced that families and other vulnerable residents are deserving of access to the services for surviving and thriving. As a pandemic and economic free fall impact all of us, we need heroic leaders to come forward to make a system change. Our heroes are not tinkering around the edges of colliding crises.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

I see three camps. One would be of those overwhelmed by the pandemic and resulting economic downturn. They are witnesses. The other camp would be those in power who fear change and losses, those who will block the innovations that provide care and empowerment to 100% of residents. The last group would be the heroes who understand the pandemic is a test, asking each of us to rethink local government and all the institutions that should keep us all safe from harm in times of calm and chaos. My fear is that the powerful will do all they can to create a new “normal” that leaves our most vulnerable behind. And I would add all of the middle class into the category of vulnerable., along with the working class and the unemployed class.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

Every day I hear from heroes committed to social justice and working to create cities, towns, and communities where all residents have access to the vital services that provide health, safety, and training for jobs that align with the future job market. Once we get 33 counties working in New Mexico with 100% Community, there are just about 3000 more counties to go across the nation. It’s all very doable as heroes exist in each of our 50 struggling states.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

I see hundreds of people, including state and local elected leaders, coming together to work toward a shared vision, many living in environments with few resources and support. I am disappointed by those who are motivated by apathy, envy, and fear, many of whom are in positions of power within philanthropy, government, and non-governmental organizations.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

My view is that while we must understand how national and state systems work, the measurable and meaningful happens on the local level. I believe if everyone would focus on building systems to empower their children, their neighbors’ children, and those on the other side of town, we can create a new standard of care and support. Our project is working to transform New Mexico one county at a time. This is all about neighbors helping neighbors. It’s about being able to take a drive and see for yourself gaps in services and the progress being made to fix them. We live in a state where families live without the basics: stable food and safe shelter. Some live without running water and electricity.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

That’s an easy one. I would like to see every resident living in a state that has developed their own unique system to ensure all residents have access to the ten vital services for surviving and thriving. This will lift everyone in a state up. State by state, county by county.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I say every day to young people that COVID-19 has shown how we are all vulnerable. By building systems of care as we do with the 100% Community initiative, we can protect our families and all the communities within a country’s borders. By being of service, we are part of something bigger than ourselves and are truly part of a community that gives back to us what we contribute to it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to believe that my co-director Dr. Ortega Courtney and I have started the 100% Community movement in New Mexico, guided by the book and initiative — a process that provides every resident with the opportunity to build a compassionate society where everyone is safe and empowered to succeed.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would greatly enjoy talking with Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation about her vision of using philanthropy to make systems change that is meaningful and sustainable.

How can our readers follow you online?

You may track our work with the Anna, Age Eight Institute at www.AnnaAgeEight.org

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


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