We are thrilled to announce the addition of Blair Harvey, MSW as the new Chief Program Officer at Michael Reese Health Trust. Blair comes to Michael Reese from the Public Health Institute of Metropolitan Chicago where she served as Chief Strategy Officer. Her 20-year career in the nonprofit sector has been focused on increased access to healthcare services, public health program design and implementation and policy and system change to impact health equity.
As Chief Program Officer, Blair is responsible for implementing, managing and evaluating the programming portion of our new strategic plan.
Gayla Brockman, Michael Reese President and CEO, had the opportunity to sit down with Blair to ask a few questions about her background and new role. We hope you enjoy getting to know her as much as we are.
Welcome, Blair. We’re so excited to have you here at Michael Reese. Let’s dig right in. Tell us about your professional background and what brought you here.
Thank you, Gayla. It’s really wonderful to be here.
My professional background spans over two decades of working in public health in a variety of capacities. Early in my career I focused on promoting policies and designing programs to increase access to care, particularly for children and adolescents. I worked at the intersection of education and health advocating for ways to create sustainable funding streams for school-based health centers and increasing reimbursement for healthcare providers at the state level. This is where I honed my interest and skills in policy change and advocacy. I was trained in grassroots organizing and co-designed advocacy campaigns with young people.
From there I pursued a master’s degree in social work, which solidified my passion for systems change and how upstream approaches are really the most effective way to make lasting impact. It crystalized for me how we might do things differently – that we must get to the root cause of inequities by dismantling systems of oppression and structural racism.
And then I started at Chicago Public Schools. My work was to build the Office of Student Health and Wellness and remove health-related barriers to learning for young people. Along with an amazing group of experts in different areas of health and education, we built solutions to support the whole child. Health is where you live, learn, work and play, so creating policies and access to services to support students while they’re in schools is necessary.
Most recently, I spent eight years at the Public Health Institute of Metropolitan Chicago. As Chief Strategy Officer, I provided strategic leadership in a variety of ways. Part of my role was to help the organization grow while strengthening internal operations and supporting our financial stability. And the other part was building cross-sector partnerships to support access to care and create stronger systems coordination. The work was to improve the public health infrastructure broadly. As is typical with non-profit organizations, I was given the chance to wear a lot of hats at PHIMC which included incubating new lines of service, co-designing community health initiatives, leading communications, strategic planning and program design and implementation. I feel well suited for this role at Michael Reese.
You have such an interesting professional background. What made you want to get involved in social impact in the first place?
I grew up on a small farm in Iowa with my parents and three siblings. My mom was a schoolteacher, and my dad took care of the farm when I was young. Like so many, we were impacted by The Farm Crisis of the 1980s. From a very early age, I experienced what it was like to be part of a small, rural community that was devastated by an economic crisis. My family was forced to leave farming and pivot to a new livelihood. We endured and were privileged to have other opportunities and support systems that many families didn’t. That experience really shaped me and gave me perspective on the rippling impact that policy has on families, communities and other social systems.
Another experience that shaped who I am is having a brother with special needs. My brother is about two years younger than me and was born with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I saw firsthand how the world showed up differently for him and how resilient he was in the face of so much adversity. I developed strong empathy and compassion early in life as a champion for him while we navigated growing up. I learned the challenges of bureaucracy and the power of safety net systems as I watched my parents navigate the various networks that were integral to his well-being. This is how I learned about advocacy and developed my interest in working for individuals who are told they don’t belong in certain systems.
As you are learning, our work is guided by the communities we serve. Having personally experienced the impact of unfair and failed policies along with the barriers society erects for those with disabilities gives you the perspective Michael Reese needs from its first Chief Program Officer. Michael Reese is a foundation that makes grants, incubates promising ideas and, as of this July, our becoming a public foundation means we can add lobbying and policy work to our advocacy tool. Your role oversees our entire program in each of those capacities. It is so important for Michael Reese to have someone like you who understands health equity from a variety of lenses and can steer our work through all levels.
This position really excited me. It was clear Michael Reese was already thinking about how it could do things differently to have a greater impact on health equity. I want to help MR think about how to shift the power imbalance between those with resources and those without. I offer my experience and insight from working in the nonprofit sector in Illinois for over 20 years and look forward to working with the community to achieve these goals. This is my first job in philanthropy. My professional experience has really been on the other side and working to secure funding from foundations and government, so I get what that’s like for our partners to be totally dependent on public and private resources. I will use that experience to co-design and enhance equitable and transparent practices at Michel Reese.
Now that you are five weeks in, what are some of the areas at Michael Reese you’re eager to jump into?
I’m really looking forward to increasing our focus on advocacy. I know that Michael Reese has always had an advocacy focus, but as of July when we fully become a public charity, we’ll be able to be more proactive and focused in our efforts. I said before I really believe policy and systems change is the most effective way to have long-term impact and for Michael Reese to have so much strength in that area already and lean into it, even more, is really exciting.
I’m also really excited about incubation. I love building projects, promoting innovation and learning new ways of building strategic solutions to complex problems – and to me, that’s what’s at the heart of our incubation tool. How can philanthropy more effectively resource and scale community-driven solutions to social change? Or how do we work with our philanthropic partners to build new ways of doing business as a sector to disrupt practices that have perpetuated inequities, like we are doing with the Health First Collaborative.
The last thing I’m really interested in is thinking about how we are working with communities. How can we build community power with our funding in more effective ways? Continuing the path of entrusting our communities to lead is the recipe for closing the racial and gender health and wealth gap. This means we need to be fully supporting their solutions, their infrastructure, their program design and partnering with them to foster stability and sustainability.
Now that we’ve covered all the professional stuff, what do you like to do outside of work?
I love to be outside as much as I can. Fresh air and sunshine are joy-inducing year-round for me. I love riding my bike and I am incredibly fortunate to live close to the lake where I take my dog for long walks or go for a swim. I also enjoy vegetable gardening, so I spend a lot of time doing that in the summer. One of my favorite things to do is explore the various Chicago neighborhoods and indulge in our incredible food scene.
Ok and final question. If you weren’t here, in this career, what would you be doing?
Well, I was an art major, a photography major in undergrad. I dreamed of working for National Geographic. Traveling the world. You know sort of like Anthony Bourdain style cultural immersion but with photography as my tool for storytelling and social change. Learning about culture and people and communities by being immersed in them. That is what I would have done.