Creating change in North Philly healthcare: The American Heart Association’s Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund
Named for a longtime fighter for healthcare equity, AL DÍA recently spoke to some of the first recipients of support in the city.
Bernard J. Tyson was a visionary leader with a career at Kaiser Permanente that lasted 30 years, starting in a six-month internship and ending as the CEO and chairman of its board of directors.
In that 30 years, Tyson built a reputation as a fighter for healthcare equity across the board, and as he entered leadership, constructed a model around his ideal of expanding access to marginalized communities.
At the helm of Kaiser Permanente, which he first assumed in 2013, Tyson’s efforts made him one of the most influential healthcare leaders in the country, and he created a healthcare model there for the world to follow.
In 2019, Tyson passed away unexpectedly in his sleep at the age of 60.
“He stepped up and he spoke out wherever he witnessed injustice,” said Tyson’s widow, Denise Bradley-Tyson. “Bernard, fearless as he was, he shook up the social systems because he firmly believed that every person deserved to live a full, healthy life.”
Bradley-Tyson said that to open a recent AL DÍA Roundtable held on Oct. 20 about a new fund she helms in her late husband’s honor, the Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund at the American Heart Association (AHA).
The fund, which is a nationwide effort, targets and supports community healthcare efforts that operate in the same vein of Tyson’s vision to attack healthcare disparities and directly address the social determinants of health.
AL DÍA’s roundtable discussion, titled “Addressing the Issues and Funding the Change,” featured four leaders at community organizations providing that bridge to healthcare in North Philadelphia. All four were also recipients of a first round of support from the Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund.
Beyond immediate funding for expanding and continuing services, fund organizers also hope to breed natural growth for the businesses it invests in over the long run, while also expanding the pool of established women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color.
It all starts by flipping a common narrative of big organizations being the driving force and empowering local leaders to be the change in their communities.
“Oftentimes, folks want to come in and say: ‘This is what we did for Philadelphia’ or ‘This is what we did to Philadelphia,’” said Gerald Johnson, the executive vice president of the Office of Health Equity and Chief Diversity Officer at the American Heart Association. “The Bernard J. Tyson Fund and the The American Heart Association and our local offices are really wanting to flip that narrative of: ‘Here’s how we partnered with Philadelphia, here’s how we partnered with local innovators, and this is what they led, and we’re glad to be part of the great things they’re doing.’”
The four community leaders highlighted as part of AL DÍA’s Roundtable were Saleemah McNeil, Founder and Reproductive Psychotherapist at the Oshun Family Center, Naima Black, the Director of the Community Doula and Lactation Program at the Maternity Care Coalition, Deboleena Dutta, Founder and CEO of Viora Health, and Amin Farhoomand, a health services market lead at Ride Health.
All bring much-needed services in childcare, mental health services, research and transportation to support bridging healthcare divides across North Philadelphia.
The talk started with every leader detailing their own experiences traversing the COVID-19 pandemic, and then the subsequent uprisings surrounding George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minneapolis.
Amid COVID, all spoke about the importance of taking their consultations and other operations virtual, whether it be mental health support for those cooped up in their homes or mothers in need of consultations from doulas and other medical experts.
At Viora Health, which had programs targeting diabetics and pre-diabetics to prevent progression of diabetes, the format was already virtual, but it became more than just a space to consult with medical experts. It was the only avenue many had to reconnect with one another and recount their experiences in the fast-changing reality of a pandemic.
“Seniors were eager to join these virtual sessions over conference calls, video conference calls, eager to see each other, eager to share with each other tips throughout COVID,” said Dutta.
For Farhoomand, the initial challenge to tackle at Ride Health was making their transport options COVID safe.
“One of the challenges during COVID was patients couldn’t get to the hospital or they couldn’t get back home because they didn’t have transportation,” he said.
Both Ride Health and Viora also expanded services even further to deliver food to clients too afraid of risking COVID exposure to go grocery shopping.
During the latter uprisings around Floyd’s murder, McNeil’s Oshun Family Center was able to raise over $100,000 for free virtual mental health support for the Black community.
She described the process of organizing the effort as “building a plane while flying it.”
“I [saw] the unrest of the community and just watching things on the news, and I just knew that our youth and our people [were] just gonna be so devastated as the year continued to progress,” said McNeil of its beginnings.
She woke up one day with the desire to take on more cases despite an already-full caseload, and decided to crowdfund for $5,000 of support.
McNeil’s initial post on Instagram announcing the effort went viral, quickly gaining $7,000. From there, the pot continued to grow exponentially.
In the end, she was able to hire five core clinicians as part of the team and a secretary to help her organize it all.
For Black, the unrest represented a time for those in her Community Doula and Lactation Program to voice their concerns more openly around racism in their world.
Specifically, she mentioned how mothers they served were more open with their insecurities around its effect on healthcare and childbirth.
“There’s a lot more courage and acknowledgement of people’s experiences,” said Black.
As for how the Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund will impact the efforts of all four community orgs, it’s in a multitude of different ways, but always with an eye towards a future of expansion and self-sustainability for the organizations.
For the Oshun Family Center, the support will help maintain the expansion the organization sustained with massive crowdfunding support last year and keep the virtual mental health sessions goin.
In Black’s case, the funding will help expand the Maternity Care Coalition’s already extensive community doula training, which teaches childbirth coaches from the community over 27 sessions to guide a successful pregnancy. Beyond childbirth, the program is also rooted in reproductive justice and racial equity.
For Viora Health, Dutta said the funding will not only allow the organization to make new hires for the next phases of programs that have already started and create more partnerships, but also pour more resources into offering more wrap-around products to clients while also keeping it simple on the technological front.
Farhoomand said the impact funding allows Ride Health to target smaller community organizations with its transport services, as they are usually the ones in most need of them.
In addition to North Philadelphia, the Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund is supporting community efforts across the country in New York City, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, the DMV area, and Seattle.
Watch the full AL DÍA Roundtable below.