Community//

Talitha Phillips: “Leadership is being placed in the position to guide, direct, move and/or motivate others”

Several years back, at one of our galas, a young woman stood on stage with her boyfriend and their newborn twin boys and told the story of how Claris helped them overcome immediate obstacles so they could join together and gain confidence in their roles as parents. They shared about the prenatal medical services that […]

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Several years back, at one of our galas, a young woman stood on stage with her boyfriend and their newborn twin boys and told the story of how Claris helped them overcome immediate obstacles so they could join together and gain confidence in their roles as parents. They shared about the prenatal medical services that were provided as well as the ongoing education and support that helped them welcome their sons into the world. Then, tragically just a few months later, one of their babies died very unexpectedly. I will never forget the seven days in the hospital before he passed away, initially praying for a miracle and then walking with them through the difficult aftermath of losing a child. The Claris community of staff, volunteers, and donors wrapped their arms around this family and became family to them. We brought meals, helped plan a funeral, and watched their other baby. We served, and loved, and grieved with them in their darkest moment. And have continued to do that ever since, over the past several years, as they have faced additional hardships as well as many joys and victories. Just like this family, we all face hard times. It is often through those times that we learn that it’s about the journey, not just the outcome.


Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Chief Executive Officer, Talitha Phillips. Talitha was originally introduced to Claris Health as a client who witnessed the organization’s life-changing work firsthand. She has now served as the CEO of Claris for eighteen years and is in charge of vision casting, leadership, organizational development, strategy and fundraising. Talitha holds a BA in Organizational Communication from Pepperdine University and is a certified labor and postpartum doula.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the backstory about what brought you to work with this organization?

Ioriginally learned about Claris when I was a senior in college. I reluctantly joined one of their pregnancy loss support groups and quickly discovered its life-changing impact on my life. I witnessed first-hand the benefit of processing loss in community with others who shared similar experiences. This 10-week support group not only changed my life, but it also prompted a calling to help other women.

Growing up with three brothers, I’d spent most of my life steering clear of women’s issues, so to me this was a miraculous new course in life. About a year after college, I accepted a part-time position as the Director of Claris, which was still small at that time. I never imagined that this cause would become the greatest passion in my life or that Claris would grow into the holistic, integrated care model that it is today.

Can you share an interesting story that’s happened to you since you began leading Claris Health?

I originally started working at Claris because I wanted other women to experience what I had — a group of people who believed in me and cared for me, regardless of the choices I make or made. However, as I began to further understand the needs, my own passion grew. I realized how our decisions affect the lives and communities around us. I also began to see both sides of so many issues that I’d never thought about before. One of the most interesting, or perhaps surprising things, was how I began to view adoption. Instead of viewing it as another form of surrogacy, where one woman sacrificially carries a baby for another, I began to see the deep love and loss for the birth mothers. I often served in the doula role for birth moms and was there in the moment when she handed her baby over to the adoptive family. Time and time again, my heart would break with her in those moments, and I found myself wanting to not let go of that baby for her.

Then almost 8 years ago, I stood on the other side adopting a baby girl. While I was thrilled to welcome a new baby into my heart and home, I was devastated at the loss of this other mom. That said, having the understanding and experience that I had created a beautifully raw and honest open adoption for us. We see our daughter’s birth mom regularly, and she is an integral part of our family. We’ve navigated this adoption together, making mistakes and learning along the way.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you may have made? What were the lessons or takeaways that you took out of that story?

A few years ago I took a team, including my two young daughters, to do similar work in Uganda. We were pulled over one afternoon by an armed Ugandan police officer. He climbed into our van, accused me of taking a photo close to a bridge (which was illegal), and demanded that I give him my phone. Without thinking about it, I stood up against him, held out my phone, and showed my camera roll proving that I hadn’t taken a photo. We battled back and forth for several minutes, both leaning in, unafraid of the other person. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw all the stunned faces of other team members and my kids in the van as their eyes bounced back and forth between me and the officer. He eventually threw his arms up in the air, yelled something out loud, and told us we could go. As soon as he left our Ugandan driver laughed and said, “you are a crazy Mzungu (non-Ugandan).” The rest of the car burst into laughter as well and there have been many subsequent conversations that started out with, “remember that one time when Talitha took on that Ugandan officer with a machine gun…and won.” While everything ended well in that instance, I definitely have since thought about the responsibility of caring for an entire team. It’s not always about being brave or about being right, it’s also about remembering the other people in my care.

Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?

In the fall of 2019, Claris launched a mobile medical unit — a clinic on wheels. This mobile clinic grew out of the needs we were seeing in our community. A lot of people have barriers such as lack of transportation and mental health struggles that make it challenging for them to access care. Many others have a high mistrust of the medical community or simply don’t feel safe leaving their neighborhoods. In order to reach people in need in some of LA’s most deserving neighborhoods, it became clear we needed to bring care directly to them. Our mobile medical clinic goes to community partner sites where patients have existing relationships and offer medical testing services (pregnancy testing, ultrasound, STD testing and general health services) as well as referrals to over 200 community agencies that offer on-going medical and social services. This model of care is low-barrier, trauma-informed and a patient-centered approach making an impact in a city where people are increasingly disconnected and under-resourced. We’re able to reach many individuals (people experiencing homelessness, trafficking victims, foster youth etc.) who may otherwise not feel comfortable accessing medical care at a traditional clinic.

Can you share a story about a particular individual (they can be nameless) who has been impacted by Claris Health’s work?

Several years back, at one of our galas, a young woman stood on stage with her boyfriend and their newborn twin boys and told the story of how Claris helped them overcome immediate obstacles so they could join together and gain confidence in their roles as parents. They shared about the prenatal medical services that were provided as well as the ongoing education and support that helped them welcome their sons into the world. Then, tragically just a few months later, one of their babies died very unexpectedly. I will never forget the seven days in the hospital before he passed away, initially praying for a miracle and then walking with them through the difficult aftermath of losing a child. The Claris community of staff, volunteers, and donors wrapped their arms around this family and became family to them. We brought meals, helped plan a funeral, and watched their other baby. We served, and loved, and grieved with them in their darkest moment. And have continued to do that ever since, over the past several years, as they have faced additional hardships as well as many joys and victories. Just like this family, we all face hard times. It is often through those times that we learn that it’s about the journey, not just the outcome.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem that Claris Health is trying to solve?

a. The community can increase their support of and involvement with local nonprofits. This includes volunteering, giving financially, and making referrals for individuals or families in need. This will help people overcome feelings of isolation, entrapment, and loneliness.

b. Society can continue to recognize, acknowledge, and share the complexity of pregnancy and sexual health needs and the various ways that they impact individuals, families and communities.

c. Politicians can engage, listen, and learn from local nonprofits. This means fully hearing from the “boots on the ground” organizations, especially those that are not government-funded and are therefore not tied to specific guidelines, demographics or other limiting factors. This will help them understand the real issues that individuals and families are facing and what is and isn’t currently working. There is often a great disconnect between those making policy decisions and those impacted by them.

How do you define Leadership?

Leadership is being placed in the position to guide, direct, move and/or motivate others. It comes with the heavy burden of responsibility, both for managing people as well as program or agency outcomes. The success of leadership is equally, if not more, process and people-oriented as it is about metrics and outcomes.

What are the five things/lessons you wished someone told you when you first started in the organization?

a. It’s lonely at the top. So cliche but so true. Surrounding yourself with other leaders who you can trust, learn from and confide in is key.

b. It’s never going to be enough. The need will always be greater than what you can accomplish. At times, you have to learn to let go of expectations and be comfortable with redirecting or even starting over.

c. You’ll never be a perfect leader and you will never stop growing. You have to remain humble, sponge-like, and learn from your mistakes.

d. You have to be passion-driven and stay connected to the “why” behind what you do. It will be easy to burn out or give up if you don’t stay connected to the people you’re helping.

e. Get used to change. There will always “be something.” Someone transitioning out of the agency, someone onboarding, funds to be raised, problems to be solved. It never stops and you have to learn to thrive in the chaos.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people what would that be?

A quick glance at today’s culture reveals that there is a pressing need for a new approach to caring for and communicating about sexual and relational health. Polarizing views surrounding sexual and reproductive health in the United States continue to permeate society. The topics of abortion and unintended pregnancy drive political and social discussion and, as a nation, our focus has shifted toward debating and attacking sides instead of caring for people. This, in turn, has a negative effect on individuals and families and greatly impacts larger communities as well as our nation as a whole. Implementing a new, integrated model of care and messaging has the potential to create unity between polarizing thoughts and communities, as we work together to solve the core issues faced by individuals in need. This is critical to remove the stigma around sexual and relational health concerns. By macro-implementation of this new model and messaging, we could see the rates of unintended pregnancy and other sexual or relational health implications lowered across the nation.

Can you please give us your favorite Life Lesson quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Never Doubt That a Small Group of Thoughtful, Committed Citizens Can Change the World; Indeed, It’s the Only Thing That Ever Has. — Margaret Mead. I have this posted in my office and think about it all the time. When I started at Claris, our budget was 90K and we could barely meet the budget each year. As we started to grow and impact more lives, I also became aware of the surrounding agencies with much larger budgets, staff, and favor in the city among politicians, celebrities, etc. I’m the type of person who thinks I’m never doing enough. I see the great need in our city and have moments where I feel that no matter how much I or we do, it’s just a drop in a bucket. There have been moments in my leadership history where I’ve felt overwhelmed by that and considered giving up because there are so many better leaders and bigger organizations out there. People who are better at strategy, management, and raising money. Before I spiral too far down that path, I am reminded of the thousands of lives that we are helping each year and the incredible work that our small team is accomplishing within our budget. We have an incredibly passionate and committed team that wants to change the world and is making a pretty big impact in this city. With that in mind, I try to do what’s possible within my skill set and my 18–20ish hour day 🙂 and have to trust that others are called to do the same.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.

George W. Bush. His leadership style fascinates me. He led the nation during a particularly tumultuous time (911, war, economic crisis, etc.) and was viewed, in the eyes of many, as an ill-equipped, unqualified leader. I will never forget the term “village idiot” running under his face as I watched a State of the Union speech at a bar in Santa Monica. And yet, W’s reputation or public opinion never seemed to bother him. He led with personal conviction, reached across the political aisles when needed, ignored what the masses did or didn’t expect of him, and, when appropriate, he looked like he was having fun.

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