Dr. Katherine Ortega Courtney: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places”

What gives me hope is that this pandemic has provided an opportunity for people to reflect and reprioritize. Many of us have now seen just how much of our lives were “extra” and how much time and money we would spend in normal times on things that really don’t matter. If we can all slow […]

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What gives me hope is that this pandemic has provided an opportunity for people to reflect and reprioritize. Many of us have now seen just how much of our lives were “extra” and how much time and money we would spend in normal times on things that really don’t matter. If we can all slow down, cut out some of the clutter, and focus on what people really need to survive and thrive, we have a real opportunity to recover from this in a meaningful and possibly game-changing way. This crisis has really demonstrated to a lot of people that first we need to survive- which means access to basic things like food and housing, and then we can thrive. That has been the missing piece from so many conversations and initiatives to improve things like school outcomes. It’s not that kids in poor communities aren’t trying, it’s that so many of them are struggling to even get through the day that they physically can’t concentrate. I think many, many people have a much better understanding of that now.

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

Dr. Courtney is an advocate for strengthening continuous quality improvement in all family-serving organizations, from health care to transportation, to create a seamless system of health and safety in each county. She promotes a data-driven, cross-sector, and technology-empowered capacity-building process. She is also the co-author, with Dominic Cappello, of 100% Community: Ensuring the 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.

She and Cappello are also co-authors of Anna, Age Eight: The data-driven prevention of childhood trauma and maltreatment, which serves as a long-overdue call-to-action for each state to end adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), trauma, social adversity, and health disparities. Dr. Courtney has a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from Texas Christian University, where she studied at the Institute of Behavioral Research. Dr. Courtney worked with the State of New Mexico for eight years, first as the Juvenile Justice Epidemiologist, then as Bureau Chief of the Child Protective Services Research, Assessment and Data Bureau.

Dr. Courtney championed and co-developed the New Mexico Data Leaders for Child Welfare program, which was also implemented in NYC, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. She has worked in policy, research and has led community initiatives through her work at the Santa Fe Community Foundation and the New Mexico Early Childhood Development Partnership.

The Anna, Age Eight Institute’s mission is to support the heroic work that is happening at the county level to ensure that 100% of people have access to 10 vital surviving and thriving services. We are based in a nation where many leaders believe that struggling people should fix themselves without help. Amid a pandemic and economic insecurity, 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 up in Espanola, New Mexico a small town in Northern New Mexico that earned the dubious title of heroin capital of the world in the 90’s. It is a place where the opportunity gap, historical inequities, and poverty are a part of every aspect of life. It is also a place with a deep sense of roots, family, and resilience. I was lucky to grow up in a wonderful family who supported my education and ambitions, but I saw the impact of social adversity up close, even before I understood what it was. Both my brother and I had friends pass away at very young ages, and we saw many people struggling with substance abuse, diseases of despair, and our community was subject to a great deal of racism and scorn. I was one of the lucky ones who had a great family and extended family. My parents owned an art gallery, and they had a lot of friends who were artists, and the gallery attracted tourists from all over the world. This really helped expand my worldview and gave me the motivation to strive for big things.

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 remember reading The Great Gatsby in one sitting when I was 15. It was the first time I thought, “wow, so this is what a great writer is.” Fitzgerald’s ability to communicate so much with simple beautiful sentences was inspiring to me. The issues of class divide, gender, and aspirations hit me really hard as well. The characters were the types of people society tells us we should aspire to be- rich, fancy and living the good life, but they were also unhappy people who didn’t care at all about who they hurt. It really had an important impact on my perception of what success means. My love for that book also led to my love and respect for great writers who can communicate big important ideas through simple relatable stories- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, and some of the more modern writers like Chuck Palahniuk, David Sedaris, and Alisa Valdez- Rodriguez.

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

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” by Ernest Hemmingway

This quote has become relevant to me both during and after particularly trying times in my life. It really captures so many themes that are personally important- resilience, strength, not letting our failures and challenges define us and being strong enough to learn from them. It also touches on the universality of hardships- we all get broken, what we do about it, and what we learn from it is what makes us who we are. What makes this my absolute favorite quote though is that it acknowledges that everyone breaks, but only some are stronger in the broken places. It implies that there is some choice involved in how we move on after hardships. I have had my share of very difficult situations, and there is no doubt in my mind that getting through it has made me stronger. I love the idea that the parts of us that have been broken are also the strongest parts.

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 Dominic Cappello, is using a data-driven, cross-sector, and technology-empowered strategy to ensure that ten vital 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. We provide the tools to identify gaps in vital services and to address them.

The institute is named after our first book, Anna, Age Eight, which is the story of a child who was killed by her mother when she was eight years old after years of being involved in child welfare. Dominic and I met while we were both working for New Mexico’s child welfare system. We saw very clearly a system that was not working, but we also saw very clearly how a system could work to support kids and families if the vital services they needed were accessible in a community. Our second book 100% Community: Ensuring 10 Vital Services for Surviving and Thriving details 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 service for thriving that includes parent support, early childhood learning programs, community schools, youth mentors, and job training.

When COVID-19 hit, we had already identified significant gaps in access to vital services like medical care. The closing of schools and loss of jobs led to even more need in the communities for things like food services, housing supports, and behavioral health care. The counties we are working with were poised and ready to identify and address gaps in these services and had coalitions from each sector available to help. Through the work of our county-level partners the framework we provided was able to help the communities respond to the coinciding pandemic and economic crises. The same services that were vital before the pandemic, are even more vital now.

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

I think heroes are people who just do the right thing. They aren’t typically the people you see winning awards and cultivating their own spotlight. Heroes to me are those who help even when it is hard, and whether or not they get credit for it. Heroes are the social workers who are exhausted and stressed out but take time to sit with and comfort infants who need human connections. They are the people who drive out to the most secluded residents to provide medical care. They are the people who drop everything to help find housing for a family who is about to be evicted. I’ve had the honor of seeing many real heroes in action and once you see it, it is almost impossible not to want to help them. I don’t consider myself a hero, but I hope that through my work I can make it easier for the heroes to do their work.

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

Passion, integrity, empathy, humility, and courage. I jotted down these characteristics during various zoom meetings with our county partners who I truly consider heroes. My co-director Dom and I have often tried to figure out what is it about these people in particular out of the many people who have read our books and seen us speak? These are people who have somehow become activated, who are driven to make a difference in their community- that’s the passion.

A lot of people have read our books, agreed with what is in them, and gone about their usual business without becoming socially engaged. Not the heroes I’m talking about. These are the people who call at 10:00 pm after reading the book because they aren’t going to wait until the morning to get started. They truly believe in this work, and that’s integrity. One of the heroes I know has told me during the COVID-19 crisis, “I will not ask my staff to do something that I won’t do myself” and that is integrity in a nutshell.

I have seen so many leaders, both in government and foundations who love to talk about all the great work they do, and then they treat their staff terribly. The heroes I’m lucky enough to know to treat the janitors and delivery people exactly the same way (or maybe even better) than they treat a senator. This is both integrity and empathy. Really seeing other people, not just as tools to help get oneself ahead, but actually caring about them is a key aspect of being a hero. This is also related to humility.

Heroes don’t view themselves as better or more special than the people they are trying to help. We have met many people who want to talk to us because they think we are doing something cool and exciting, and then it quickly becomes clear that they want to get their name attached to something that might get publicity. Th

e people who are making real changes in their communities don’t give a thought to who is going to get credit for the work, they just want to see good things happen in their community and help people because they truly care about those people. That brings us to courage. Heroes are not fearless. To me, one of the characteristics of a hero is the willingness to do something even though it might be scary or hard. If being a hero was easy, everyone would do it.

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 minored in mythology as an undergraduate, and one of my favorite concepts is the idea of the hero’s journey. One of the key elements of the hero’s journey is the initial reluctance or refusal of the call. This goes back to the idea of humility.

Ordinary people become heroes, not because they set out to be heroes but because they see a need that they can’t ignore. It often goes back to things they experienced in childhood and the idea of empathy for other people. I think there are certain types of people who want to prevent others from having to go through what they have been through. For example, as I mentioned, I grew up in a community that had intense struggles with substance abuse and violence.

A lot of people I went to school with were lost to those struggles. We also had a disproportionate number of people become things like social workers, counselors, public servants, and teachers. I think this has to do with the enlightenment part of the hero’s journey. For a lot of the people who I see as heroes, surviving to adulthood was a heroic act in itself, and having gone through that journey and learned from it they are now compelled to help others.

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?

When my co-director and I were working for child welfare, we saw so clearly a system that was broken, both at the state and national levels. Kids were being hurt, even dying, parents were struggling, the social workers were struggling, and there did not seem to be any systematic way of improving the system.

There was a particularly disturbing fatality case that really seemed to embody all of the problems the organization was struggling with. We found that we weren’t having any success in changing the system from inside, but we weren’t ok with leaving things as they were, when we knew that solutions existed. That case inspired us to write Anna, Age Eight. We felt strongly that we didn’t want to write a book just bashing an already failing system. Through our work on Continuous Quality Improvement in the field, we knew that outcomes could be greatly improved if various systems worked together to support parents in new ways, which led us to the idea of 100% of community members having access to 10 vital services.

Once, Anna, Age Eight was published, we had several heroes reach out to us to help them implement our vision in their communities.

When COVID-19 hit, the role of these 10 vital services became even more important. We were fortunate that the framework that had been built in the counties we work with translated easily to addressing the crisis and recovering from it. Something like this was never on our radar when we started, but we knew that these were the ingredients for safe and thriving communities, and those ingredients help communities be ready for any type of crisis.

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

I have the great fortune to work directly with heroes every day. Our 100% Community county partners do everything from delivering water to Navajo communities, supporting chemistry labs making hand sanitizer, to leading the charge to ensure that everyone in their community can be tested for COVID-19. The people we work with are not waiting for permission or funding to start their work. They see a need in their communities and do everything in their power to address it. This in itself is heroic. What is even more heroic is that our systems are not set up to support that type of work, and in many cases are actually set up to discourage that type of work. Our community leaders face very real resistance and challenges, but they charge ahead because they are more concerned with making sure people have what they need than they are with disappointing the powers that be.

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

I think one of the most frightening things about this pandemic is that so many aspects of it can lead to fear of others and isolation. Everything I have learned both through my academic and professional career has taught me that to really thrive, parents and families, need a community of support. The current situation has us literally crossing the street to avoid our neighbors. Our most vulnerable populations are especially at risk of becoming isolated and that could have severe consequences, especially for children.

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

What gives me hope is that this pandemic has provided an opportunity for people to reflect and reprioritize. Many of us have now seen just how much of our lives were “extra” and how much time and money we would spend in normal times on things that really don’t matter. If we can all slow down, cut out some of the clutter, and focus on what people really need to survive and thrive, we have a real opportunity to recover from this in a meaningful and possibly game-changing way. This crisis has really demonstrated to a lot of people that first we need to survive- which means access to basic things like food and housing, and then we can thrive. That has been the missing piece from so many conversations and initiatives to improve things like school outcomes. It’s not that kids in poor communities aren’t trying, it’s that so many of them are struggling to even get through the day that they physically can’t concentrate. I think many, many people have a much better understanding of that now.

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

It has been very inspiring to me to see so many people jump right into action. As soon as the schools were shut down, people came together to make sure that kids were still able to get their lunches. I saw so many people asking “how can I help?” and actually following through. I saw people become very activated by this crisis. Partnerships that would have normally taken months to develop materialized quickly as the urgency of the situation inspired innovation.

The thing I find most disappointing is people who see barriers to solutions and just give up. There are myriad reasons why systems don’t change and why things don’t work. It has always frustrated me when people shrug and accept things just because “that’s the way it’s always been.” That type of behavior becomes even more frustrating in times of crisis. There are some people who are completely unwilling to speak up or shake things up, even when they see something that needs fixing. There are very few things more disappointing to me than that.

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

I’m not sure if this has caused me to reassess my view of the world, so much as it has reinforced it. There are stark disparities that have caused many communities to struggle for decades. Everyone should be asking themselves “why are certain communities more impacted than others?” The reasons for that are the same reasons that some communities struggle more with substance abuse, child abuse, and crime. Historical trauma and social adversity. This crisis has shined a spotlight on the struggles of those communities. It has also provided an opportunity for people to come together in new and innovative ways to address these challenges.

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

I think this situation has made us realize that we are vulnerable. I hope this leads to more empathy in our society, more caring, and more recognition than any of us can find ourselves in a situation where we need help. I think that this could create more of a willingness to help others. I would hope that would lead to more of a focus on ensuring that everyone has access to vital services to get through any situation.

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 would tell young people that regardless of where they come from they can make a positive impact. Through my years of community work I have learned that many people don’t realize that they have the power to speak up. It is surprising how difficult that is for people. I would say that the most powerful tool you have is speaking the truth. It is hard to do, and it can be very scary but it can change everything. If you see systems that are clearly not working, if you see organizations acting in discriminatory ways, if you see unethical things happening, the most important thing you can do is point it out. You can’t argue with the truth, and you will find that people greatly respect and admire those who are willing to say the things that others are afraid to say.

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. 🙂

My co-author and I have spent a lot of time talking about how the best-case scenario for our books would be if they could start a movement. If we were successful in doing that, it would promote a process in every county where the focus is on ensuring that every resident has an opportunity to thrive. Everyone, 100%. We can envision a state where the overarching goal of everyone- governments, non-profits, businesses, schools is to ensure that residents can survive and thrive. If we have that as the overarching goal, everything would fall into place. The bad things like dropout rates, crime, and child abuse would go down, and the good things- economic development, physical and mental health, and public safety would improve.

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 love to meet Lin Manuel Miranda. A different quote from Hamilton pops into my head in almost every situation. I have spent many hours with “I’m not throwing away my shot” in my head, which honestly probably leads me to speak up more. In addition to the impact that Hamilton made by exposing both the American Revolution and hip-hop music to new audiences, the decision to cast people of color was one of the most important things that have happened in art in this century. Growing up, I saw so few people in mass media who looked like me. I can’t express how grateful I am that when my daughter pictures Broadway stars she pictures people who look like Renee Elise Goldsberry, Anthony Ramos, and Leslie Odem Jr. His drive and his genius is inspiring, but I also admire his willingness to push important messages and focus on opportunities for those who may not normally have them.

How can our readers follow you online?

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

Facebook: @100percentcommunity

Twitter: @Annaageeight

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

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