Jul 27, 2022

A Conversation with Liz Burpee, Project Director

Liz Burpee joined as the Project Director for the National Consortium for Public Health Workforce Development in April 2022.

 

How did we find you? What intrigued you about the work?

It’s not a very exciting story; I was recruited through LinkedIn!

Regardless, I was immediately interested in the position for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s an opportunity to lead a collective impact initiative, which is something I’ve been doing for the past few years and is where I believe my skill set fits best — organizing groups of people, synthesizing seemingly disparate ideas and information, getting people to create, buy into and work together toward a shared vision. But it’s also because I’ve spent a large part of my career trying to advance the field of public health, in particular, health equity. I’m really excited about the impact that supporting the government public health workforce could have on health equity in the communities they serve.

Tell us more about your background in public health.

I have a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Washington (as well as Master of Social Work). But I’ve also been a member of the governmental public health workforce myself. I led the Community Health Improvement program at the City of New Orleans Health Department before leaving to lead a collective impact initiative targeting racial health disparities in the city through a small community development nonprofit, Broad Community Connections.

And while there were great things happening at the New Orleans Health Department and I was surrounded and led by people whom I really admire, the lack of funding and the bureaucratic hurdles made the work difficult. These issues aren’t unique to New Orleans; they’re very common in health departments across the country. I respect the people who stay in governmental public health, but I also understand why some choose to or must leave.

You spoke a little bit about why you think you’re well-suited to lead collective impact initiatives but tell us more. What do you believe is required?

I think I’m particularly skilled at sitting at the 30,000-foot level and seeing how things fit together. In my life and career, I’ve seen really brilliant people try and work together to get something done and not be able to make progress. Oftentimes this is because they lack a leader who can break down what they are trying to accomplish into bite-sized pieces and navigate the group through a process to achieve their goals.

I also have a background in community organizing. I love connecting with people and working to understand the self-interests of everyone involved — what they’re passionate about, what their gifts are, and what they need to stay motivated. I really want people to shine and to feel like they’re being recognized for who they truly are.

Based on your experience, what is most challenging about collective impact work?

It’s generally very easy for people to understand that something needs to change and, in the beginning, to be energized to come together to solve a problem.

Once you really dig in and begin to uncover the complexity of the problem, people come forward with different ideas about what needs to happen. Solutions-based brainstorming is great, but without strong facilitation or boundaries on what type of work with which the group can and should move forward, people easily get stuck between their sense of urgency to quickly solve problems and a set of solutions that lack focus and with an unrealistic scope. Group members can become frustrated, confused, and discouraged. When people start to feel this way, they understandably dismiss the effort as “just another group that’s failed”, and they check out.

People can also be unsure about what collective impact is. It’s certainly not about creating a whole new organization. Instead, it’s about getting the right stakeholders at the table to figure out what their goals are , which issues they want to address,  assessing what they are already doing, and determining how they can realistically shift their current efforts in the same direction so those efforts can complement and build off one another.

What are your immediate priorities for the National Consortium?

I feel really lucky to come in at this time where there is such a strong foundation. I think now our challenge is to make sure that everyone — those who have been involved since the beginning and those who have joined midstream — is firmly grounded in our common agenda and understands the type of work the Consortium can and should take on to address public health workforce issues with an equity lens. We need to ground ourselves in what our role is and isn’t while also making sure that we’re capitalizing on existing momentum, so people stay motivated.

There are millions of things we could do to support the public health workforce to thrive and contribute to achieving health equity. We can’t do it all, but if we set ourselves up to be both strategic and nimble, Consortium members will recognize and jump on smart opportunities to have an impact.

What is your vision for the coming year?

For me, success will mean that our Steering Committee and first Working Group have a clearly defined portfolio of work at which they are successfully chipping away. The internal processes of the Consortium will feel seamless, and we will be making consistent progress towards our objectives while also thinking creatively and ambitiously about what to tackle next.

I also want to ensure that our Consortium reflects the diversity of the public health workforce and the communities they serve. It’s important that we have significant participation from stakeholders representing Indigenous communities, communities of color, rural areas, and more. These are the voices that should have a heavy hand in steering our work.

I want the stakeholders at our table to prioritize aligning their work and resources with our common agenda, shifting the direction of the field at its core. This includes taking a look at how and where they are not aligned with the Consortium’s value of equity and starting to take real steps to change.

I want the Consortium to have a stronger presence in the field of public health, which includes putting out resources, information, and calls to action that public health departments and other decision-makers put to use across the country.

I want us to be well on our way to developing a respected track record of accomplishments that leads those health departments — as well as funders and policy makers — to look to our members and the Consortium as a whole to inform their decision-making. I want funders and policy makers to follow our lead.

I want to ensure we have systems in place to evaluate the impact of our work and I want to have secured additional funding to ensure robust backbone support and to enable the Consortium to realize all of its plans.

Any parting words?

We are not going to solve all the issues that plague the public health workforce, but if we’re smart in the way we organize ourselves and who is at our table, we can make a sizable impact. We can be a lighthouse for the field of public health, lighting a path to work collectively to ensure that we have a diverse and highly skilled public health workforce that is respected and supported.

The public health workforce is one of our most effective weapons against health inequities, and we want everyone to understand that.

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