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Conscient Leaders: Interview with Emily Barson

by | Mar 3, 2021

In our latest Conscient Leaders interview, we talk with Emily Barson, Executive Director of United States of Care, about how her team responded and evolved in many ways in 2020, and her advice on how leaders in any sector can effectively navigate 2021—and beyond.

Read the full transcipt below.

Hannah:
Hello everyone. Welcome to our next installment of Conscient Leaders. I’m Hannah Romick, the co-CEO of Conscient Strategies, and I’m here with Emily Barson. We’re so excited to have a conversation today about all fun things leadership in the time of COVID and in 2020 into 2021. Emily, it’s so great to have you with us today. Why don’t you tell the world a little bit about who you are and why you are.

Emily:
Sure. And thanks for having me. I’m Emily Barson, I’m the executive director of United States of Care, which is a non-partisan non-profit organization. We just had our three year birthday, and our mission is to ensure that everyone has access to quality, affordable healthcare, regardless of health status, social need or income.

Hannah:
Such a great mission. Healthcare in America and around the world has been shifting. And I almost see it as like a shape-shifter like over the course of the last few years. So it’d be great to hear how you’ve been managing over the last year. And some of the things your organization has been doing—the list is not small.

Emily:
Yeah, absolutely. Well, um, you know, overall we really do our work in a way that tries to center the needs of people and that’s sort of our touchstone of knowing that the healthcare debate and healthcare reform has become very political and, you know, very focused on, you know, the political ramifications. And what we try to do is really take a step back and look at what all the needs are that unite people, that there are shared needs across people, regardless of their, of their politics. Obviously as COVID hit and we realized what the scale and the scope of the crisis was going to be, we realized that we needed to be part of the solution. And so we really jumped in, in March of 2020, um, almost a year ago now. And were able to step into the response effort, um, developing resources for policy makers, and playbooks to highlight best practices. We were connecting, you know, sort of incoming needs from state leaders to resources. We partnered with COVID exit strategy, which was a group trying to really use the data to drive evidence-based decision-making about reopening. And you know, we really saw this as critical to just surviving and, you know, really helping support the needs during the immediate term. And also looking ahead to, “how can we be part of building a better healthcare system in the wake of this pandemic?”

Hannah:
It almost sounds like you didn’t miss a beat once the pandemic hit, and yet I suspect it probably was not exactly in your plans to undertake all of these initiatives. So I’m curious, “pivot” is one of the big words of the last year. You, I’m sure if you did a Google search, you’d get a bazillion responses. I’m curious how much of that was a pivot and what did it take to create that pivot?

Emily:
Yeah, I mean, it certainly was, especially for the first few months when there was just so much to wrap our arms around just even, um, understanding the needs and what the gaps were that we could be valuable in addressing in ways that might not have been what we thought we had. Certainly weren’t what we thought we were going to be doing when we set our 2020 goals and work plans. But you know, sort of stepped into what we knew we needed to do. And, you know, for the first several months, it really was a pivot where our entire organization shifted gears and was sort of all hands on deck, in a bit of a re-imagining of, uh, of our role, to do this really, in a timely way. And, you know, it has certainly maintained, or, continued to be a priority and really top of mind, now, you know, moving into the next few months, seeing that vaccine education and outreach, and again, just sort of like focusing on people’s needs, bringing science-based information, you know, that’s sort of where our next frontier is. And I think, you know, ultimately we see that there is a lot of agreement that it’s not enough to just go back to normal, you know, go back to the way the healthcare system was before the pandemic. I think the reality is we’ve seen so much of the shortcomings that a lot of us knew were there, but have just really come to light. And so I think it really renews our charge towards our ultimate mission and maybe even opens the door for reforms that politically may have not been possible before.

Hannah:
The other things your organization has been working on over the last year, if not more, is the diversity, equity and inclusion, work internally and in service of the people you’re advocating for. I’d love to hear how events in the last year have, um, really impacted the way your team has been thinking about it and what you’ve been doing to really highlight that aspect of how you’re leading the organization.

Emily:
Yeah. It’s been really an important piece for us, as you said for more than a year we’ve been working through, both the internal, and the external implications. And I will say, you know, certainly the events of last spring and summer, and really this renewed and overdue national conversation around racial justice and around racism. And, in particular in our work, you know, in healthcare, which are really manifesting in the disparate impacts of the pandemic, has I think really just reaffirmed that this was needed to be a priority and certainly lifted it up as, as more of a priority for us and for across the sector. I think, you know, we’ve brought in a health equity fellow to help us, really have a view across the work as to how we can be more intentional and more thoughtful about lifting up equity issues. We’ve developed an equity lens that, you know, really helps us just sort of step back as we’re stepping into projects or different programs and, you know, ask ourselves the key questions to make sure that we are being intentional about infusing that across our work.

Hannah:
One of the last questions I’ll ask is what advice might you have for other leaders out there? As we think about heading into 2021, whether it’s around resiliency or just organizational strength, what are some of the things you’re taking with you and what are some things that you would share with others?

Emily:
I think, you know, really in this space of resiliency, but I would, at least for us really think about it as being nimble and, you know, knowing that we, the best laid plans may not come to be, but that, you know, what we experienced allowed us to sort of see another side of our mission and our strategy and another way that we could be impactful in meeting people’s needs. And, I think that was a great lesson in allowing ourselves to step out of set plans and do the pivot that we needed to do. And while I hope that 2021 won’t encounter another full pivot, you know, obviously we realize that the impacts of COVID are not going anywhere certainly on the immediate impact on our lives this year. But also when you talk about working in the healthcare advocacy space, we know that there is no pre COVID and post COVID that, you know, this is going to impact the work that we do for years. And so, you know, I think it’s been a really important learning period for us to think about the framing and the world in which we work and how we can be sort of moving the message forward of rebuilding stronger in the wake of COVID. And that’s obviously very direct in an organization that works on healthcare access and affordability, but, I think it’s really a lesson that’s transferable to other leaders as well.

Hannah:
That’s great. Thank you so much, Emily, really appreciated your time this morning, and look forward to continuing our conversations with you over time.

Emily:
Likewise, thanks so much. Thank you.

About United States of Care:

The mission of United States of Care is to ensure that everyone has access to quality, affordable health care regardless of health status, social need, or income. A non-partisan non-profit, the organization is building and mobilizing a movement to achieve long-lasting solutions to make health care better for everyone. United States of Care will help make it happen by working with Americans from across the country: patients, caregivers, advocates, clinicians, policymakers, and business, civic, and religious leaders. Learn more at unitedstatesofcare.org.

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