'We don’t want to go back to normal.'
The public health response to COVID-19.
"People talk about ‘going back to normal,’ says Monica Valdes Lupi ’94. “But for many of our communities of color, normal was terrible. We don’t want to go back to normal.”
Valdes Lupi has dedicated her professional life to public health—with a particular focus on racial justice and health equity. As she has since her days at Bryn Mawr, she focuses on communities of color and vulnerable populations. In college, she did a lot of volunteer work—tutoring and working in after-school programs with the largely Spanish-speaking migrant worker population in Kennett Square. “A lot of the formative development happened at Bryn Mawr,” she says, “doing the volunteer work and learning about advocacy and community organizing.”
Since her undergraduate days (and a law degree from Dickinson Law School and a master’s in public heath from Boston University), Valdes Lupi has clocked nearly 20 years working
in governmental public health at the local, state, and national levels.
For most of her career, she worked in her home state of Massachusetts—in the early days as chief of staff at the Boston Public Health Commission and then as deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Health. After three years with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials in D.C., she returned to Boston as executive director at the Public Health Commission, where she had started her governmental public health career.
After two decades in government, she was ready for a new challenge.
“At the beginning of last summer, I began thinking about making some changes and, after talking with family and colleagues, decided to make a transition in the fall,” she explains. “My team and I had launched new initiatives like the Neighborhood Trauma Team Network and had strengthened our health equity framework. We had some work to do in strengthening our tobacco control regulations, so I committed to shepherding those efforts through the regulatory process.”
The time seemed right to shift her focus, and 2020 would be a transition year.
In January, she started a part-time fellowship supporting the Big Cities Health Coalition at the de Beaumont Foundation. “It was an opportunity to learn more about philanthropy and what it is like to work in philanthropy,” she says, “and also allowed me some time to be more creative in terms of writing and working on specific policy-related issues and supporting an urban health agenda.”
By press time, she’ll be in a new full-time role as managing director of the Kresge Foundation’s health programs, where she’ll work alongside colleagues managing portfolios related to education, arts and culture, social investment, and human services. She describes Kresge, with its strategic approach to philanthropy, as representing exactly where she wants to be right now. “They’re not just focused on health per se but really looking at health across all their programs,” she says.
An Equity Lens
But in early February, as news about the coronavirus broke, her transition year became consumed by the public health crisis. Instead of carving out time for writing, thinking, and connecting with family, she found her time devoted to the pandemic.
At de Beaumont, she shifted from working on larger domestic health policies to figuring out exactly what was going on with the big city health departments and ways to support and promote their efforts.
Then, in late March, Judy Monroe, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation, came calling.
Over the years, Monroe had mentored Valdes Lupi as she continued to grow and develop as a public health leader. So, it was no surprise that Valdes Lupi jumped at the chance to help facilitate a call that Monroe needed with public health officials in Massachusetts.
Following those conversations, Valdes Lupi reached out to Monroe to offer her support and express her interest in joining the foundation’s COVID-19 Corps. She became the first senior advisor working with the foundation on its response activities and, given her experience and leadership at multiple levels of public health, was able to quickly connect with her peers and share their frontline experiences with the foundation.
An independent nonprofit authorized by Congress to support the Centers for Disease Control, the CDC Foundation has as its main mission partnering with the CDC to promote and advance the work of public health, both domestically and abroad. During the pandemic, that means helping local, state, tribal, and territorial health departments respond to and recover from COVID-19.
Valdes Lupi’s work at the CDC Foundation has been wide-ranging. She’s talked with corporate partners and other foundations about collaborative opportunities. Partnerships have been formed with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Satcher Health Leadership Institute, Lysol, and Facebook, among others. Working with Leavitt Partners, the foundation hosted a series of industry-specific webinars—for retailers, childcare providers, and K–12 schools—that provide insight about the CDC guidelines
Then there’s TikTok. Valdes Lupi says, “TikTok donated $15 million”—CDC Foundation’s largest donation to date—“to hire public health and other clinical positions in communities that were not getting the resources that they needed initially—places such as Detroit, New Orleans, and rural communities. These additional staff are now working with local health departments who are in the trenches doing contact tracing and pushing out messages to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.
“Honestly, I didn’t know much about TikTok other than my daughter and her obsession with the dance videos,” she adds. “Sometimes, in crises, the most creative partnerships we form are with those organizations that we haven’t worked with before.”
Throughout her work at the foundation, she has remained focused on her long-standing commitment to health equity. “How do you ensure that, from a health perspective, our Black and Brown communities are getting the help they need,” she asks, “especially in a time of business reopenings and trying to recover economically?”
For the foundation, the answer has centered on identifying resources and providing grants to communities of all kinds—communities of color, homeless and unsheltered populations and individuals, among others. In Virginia, for example, the foundation worked with the city of Richmond on addressing an outbreak among the Latinx population.
“I’m really thinking through COVID-19 with a health equity resilience lens,” Valdes Lupi explains. “We actually want to use this pandemic as an opportunity to make long-lasting changes. There are three crises that we’re confronting now: health, economic, and social.
COVID-19 has resulted in health and economic crises, and now we’ve layered in a social crisis with the police killing of George Floyd. Everything is converging—which is unprecedented. So it’s important for the work that we do to approach it with an equity lens.”
From Valdes Lupi’s perspective, the greatest challenge is not the scientific one. Daunting as it might be to develop a vaccine “at warp speed,” the societal challenges—food insecurity, housing instability, health inequities, job loss, and a work world where only the privileged can telework—loom even larger.
And when even the simple act of wearing a mask is a hot-button political issue, the road ahead is daunting indeed. Public health work has always been challenging, Valdes Lupi says. “I’ve experienced hostility working in governmental public health,” she explains. “When we work toward limiting access to tobacco products or increasing vaccination rates or increasing access to healthy food options, we always hear from people who don’t want ‘a nanny state,’” she explains. “But I never envisioned that public health leaders would need to think about wearing bulletproof vests or have a 24-hour police detail to do this work.”
“There is no magic cure,” she says, “no simple solution.” Instead, she argues, it will take a coalition of community members, government, the private sector, and philanthropy all working together to get people, communities, and businesses back on track.
“Coming from Massachusetts,” she says, “where many environments allow for an open exchange about racism and structural barriers, and then going to work for an association with a bipartisan mission taught me about the importance of working across the aisle.
“What’s the prescription? We have to make sure that we don’t live in an echo chamber. We have to hear multiple voices, multiple perspectives, even if those are difficult to hear. We need to have diversity in those voices in order to take a collective approach to rebuilding our communities and nation.”