Great Things Come in Threes: Austin Public Health Leadership

Dr. Desmar Walkes, AHA Medical Director, Adrienne Stirrup, Interim Director of APH and Stephanie Howard-Hayden, Assistant City Manager.
If asked to imagine a conversation with Austin's Assistant City Manager for Health & Environment, the Interim Director of Austin Public Health (APH) and the Director of the Austin Health Authority (AHA), you’d be forgiven for being completely wrong about what such a meeting might be like.

After the recent announcements of black women at each of these posts, soulciti sat down for what was the first such meeting with these leaders and experienced what ended up being part policy discussion, part sister circle, part motivational speaking, and part praise and worship service.

Stephanie Howard-Hayden, as Assistant City Manager for Health & Environment and Culture & Lifelong Learning, is at the top of Austin’s public health leadership team. Asked about working in a city with such small black representation, she referred to the solid lessons she learned from her childhood community.

“Growing up, I was one to talk to anyone out in public. I had friends from all backgrounds and my mother always saw that as an advantage for me.” As one who became intimately familiar with the drastically different realities for people in different segments of society, a commitment to social justice naturally weaved its way into the fabric of her guiding principles.

Adrienne Stirrup, who is replacing Howard- Hayden as Interim Director of APH, and Dr. Desmar Walkes, AHA Medical Director, both echoed the value of understanding the reality of communities outside their own. Stirrup pointed out that “in this country, [as a black person] you are socialized to understand the needs and norms of the dominant culture. You learn to adapt to survive and you bring that knowledge into the workspace.”

Empathy is a result of your lived experience.

The luxury of not having to become intimately familiar with the culture and norms of others all too often creates blind spots for those who are often in power. Dr. Walkes added that “Empathy is a result of your lived experience.”

The shared lived experience as black women has proven to be a time-saver, trust-creator, and empathy-builder, in a city and time where these are all valuable. Stirrup recalls a moment shortly after Dr. Walkes took her post, and an inappropriate media question was sent her way. “I could see her expression through her mask, and knew I needed to redirect.” That instinctive ability to connect and make timely decisions, often without as much as a conversation, has been a rare and welcomed comfort for these public health officials.

While their journeys to this point in time are all different, all three women share an adamant commitment to public service. Howard-Hayden is a social worker by profession, and although she hadn’t imagined herself as an Assistant City Manager, the opportunity to influence policy and contribute to the development of those within her reach is perfectly in line with her desire to help others.  “Everything in my journey has prepared me for this moment, ” she said.

Stirrup majored in communications and just knew she would “be the next Robin Roberts.” However, after stints with the Boys and Girls Club in Charleston, S.C and as the Executive Director of YMCA branches along the east coast, she discovered there were other ways to use her skills and also fulfill her commitment to helping others. Prior to this role, Stirrup served as Executive Director of APH’s Health Equity and Community Engagement Division. She has been committed to public health and equity work for more than 25 years.

Dr. Walkes’ parents both came from humble beginnings, but with their foray into the medical field (her mother a nurse, her father a physician), she inherited their passion for reaching back and making things better for others. Describing her current role, “I am right where I’ve been wanting to be.”

Since the Master Plan of 1928, the difference in where folks live, work, and play correlate to access to transportation, access to care, and the COVID-19 positivity rates.

As public health officials, all three women noted how COVID-19 laid bare the disparities that existed long before the pandemic hit. Each expressed a commitment to doing what they can in their current roles to take advantage of the expanded awareness of the disparity of access to healthcare and resources in general. “The disparities have always been there,” Howard-Hayden said. “Since the Master Plan of 1928, the difference in where folks live, work and play correlate to access to transportation, access to care and the COVID-19 positivity rates.” Hardly able to contain her frustration, Stirrup added, “It’s the same map! The same map for high blood pressure, the same map for diabetes, food insecurity, and more. Hopefully, since achieving herd immunity requires addressing everyone, COVID-19 may be an a-ha moment!”

Dr. Walkes pointed out that the key to really leveraging all that we are discovering during the pandemic is data. [paging Measure Austin!] “This is all data-driven. There is no grant funding without data. We must gather data and clean up the data that has been collected. If we don’t properly fix the data we have, we’re gonna miss the opportunity to make the needed changes. We have to finish the job.”

While COVID-19 was taking up all the oxygen in every media room, the homelessness crisis has been steadily exploding in Austin. And as has always been the case, Black residents have been disproportionately affected by the lack of access to secure housing.

When asked about this, Stirrup said, “Homelessness results from multiple system failures – education, justice, behavioral health/health care to name a few.  Often these failures have the same root causes – inequitable policy. I hope to use my role to create an understanding of homelessness so that our community response is one geared toward improving/reducing system failure vs. individual failure.”

Howard- Hayden pointed out that we have many good solutions, such as Permanent Supportive Housing that work, but need to be scaled to fit the existing challenge in our community. “I’m committed to working with the Homeless Strategy Office, city staff, city management, elected officials, services providers, the faith-based community, and business sector to ensure homeless people are housed. We are stronger together.”

All conversations, whether budget, or hiring, or policy decisions, must have that equity angle from the beginning.

The women all seemed keenly aware of this unique opportunity in history for them to make a significant impact.  Stirrup stated that she sees herself as the “next building block in Austin’s equity conversations. All conversations, whether budget, or hiring, or policy decisions, must have that equity angle from the beginning.” Her goal is to ensure that her department is adequately resourced so that it can push forward the initiatives that come through those conversations.

Dr. Walkes agreed that there must be work to erase the very stark dividing line in the city. She hopes that her work supports the goal of making people feel that they believe they belong. “With that feeling, anyone can thrive.” Howard- Hayden is most excited about her opportunity to expose young people to the role of Public Health. She plans to intentionally mentor others toward their stated professional goals and is excited to be in a position of influence to connect them to useful resources.

It’s about your actions. Watch me.

Their passion, commitment, and readiness to serve was palpable even in a virtual environment. When asked about the naysayers that will resist the notion of black female leadership, each of them offered unique, succinct responses. Dr. Walkes said in her customary calm demeanor, “It’s about your actions. Watch me.”  Stirrups quoted a good friend. “They hated on Jesus.” Howard-Hayden, pointing out that she has already faced her share of doubters said, “I can show you better than I can tell you. I just continue to be the person I need to be. I pray about everything and ask God where He wants me to be.”

When asked for any final words, Dr. Walkes said simply, “Get vaccinated.”

In the final analysis, Austin is poised to benefit from the training, experience, camaraderie, and shared mission of three powerful black women leading its public health services. soulciti says, “Here, here!”

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