This Women’s History Month, California Black Media is profiling three Black women on the leading edge of California’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic: Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris, Sec. of Gov. Ops Yolanda Richardson & Senior V.P. of External Affairs, Blue Shield of California Kimberley Goode. The profiles explore how these exceptional women have brought their experience, knowledge and leadership abilities to driving California’s COVID-19 recovery efforts. It also looks at the challenges they have faced, the successes they have won, and how they balance the rigors of their public roles with the responsibilities of their private lives.
Nadine Burke Harris is California’s first Surgeon General, a role that consists of a number of high-level internal governmental obligations, as well as a significant amount of public-facing responsibility. In addition to advising the governor on health matters, she is also the State’s “public health spokesperson,” Burke Harris told California Black Media.
“Probably the biggest part of my job is that I translate science into information that people can use to help keep themselves healthy. That’s probably my favorite part of the job,” she says.
When asked what her biggest success has been regarding California’s pandemic-related public-health efforts, Burke-Harris focused on the state’s equity measures. They include equity metrics within the state’s reopening blueprints for counties as well as an equity strategy within COVID-19 vaccine allocation that reserves 40 % of vaccines for socio-economically disadvantaged communities. She also mentioned her role as co-chair of the Community Vaccine Advisory Committee, which is part of the process of determining how California allocates and distributes its vaccines.
“I think our reopening blueprint really demonstrates how seriously California is taking the issue of equity because our whole notion is that we recognize that this pandemic is disproportionately hard on Black communities, and we really want to make sure that when we are reopening that we are doing an equitable reopening,” said Burke-Harris.
Prior to becoming California’s Surgeon General, Burke-Harris treated children as a pediatrician. She is the founder of the Center for Youth Wellness in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco. In her decade and a half working in the community, Burke-Harris saw how certain equity and accessibility issues would impact her patients’ ability to receive care.
Burke-Harris says, “There are a lot of little things that you realize. For example, I was just on a conversation where we were talking about how close a vaccine site has to be in order to be considered accessible. One of the things that I highlighted is that I live in San Francisco, and I have a car, so for me, something that’s five miles away is perfectly acceptable. But for the patients that I cared for, I had the experience of seeing how hard it is for someone who’s got two or three kids to take three buses across town to get where they have to go. Five miles away may not be accessible. That has certainly informed my role in the state and how I advise the governor.”
In addition to her work on the COVID-19 response, Burke-Harris has also continued her previous work on raising awareness about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and how toxic stress affects children. A training initiative, which she began in January 2020, has now educated almost 20,000 doctors about how to identify and improve healthcare outcomes for people who have experienced ACEs.
As for her biggest challenge during the pandemic, she acknowledged a feeling of exhaustion. Such exhaustion, she says, is common among health care providers and others on the frontline of the COVID-19 response and relief efforts, after a full year of the pandemic.
“It’s been a real sprint. My colleagues in government, and especially in health and human services, have been working around the clock responding to this emergency. It’s a lot, it’s late at night, on the weekends, my family not seeing enough of me. I think that for all of us, just the endurance has been pretty intense,” Burke Harris says.
To help recover from the daily pressures of work, Burke Harris values self-care and family time. She makes an intentional effort to practice meditation as selfcare when life gets hectic. As for family time, she enjoys game nights and snuggles from her children to cultivate joy. Also, her kids are quick to tell her when she seems stressed.
Burke Harris says, “I remember there was one point during the January surge that was really intense. I was having dinner with my family and my eight-year-old said, ‘Oh no, it looks like Mama lost her giggle.’ In that moment, he just held up a mirror for me, and how much the intensity and the pressure of my work was coming into our family life. It just reinforced for me that no matter what I’ve got to keep that sense of playfulness with my kids.”
In January 2020, Gov. Newsom appointed Yolanda Richardson as California’s new Secretary of the Government Operations Agency. Now, one year into that role, the governor has charged Richardson with spearheading California’s vaccination distribution. That’s in addition to other COVID-19 emergency response initiatives she leads, including promoting equitable testing and supplying personal protective equipment where needed to keep California’s population of 40 million people safer.
Richardson hit the ground running responding to the COVID-19 pandemic four days after being sworn into office by Newsom. She is responsible for 11 state departments and programs that ensure that the California state government runs smoothly and achieves its goal of overcoming the challenges presented by the pandemic. Richardson’s passion for problem-solving was an effective tool in boosting state efforts to build a coronavirus testing laboratory and establishing a vaccine task force. Her 25 years of experience in the healthcare industry has sharpened her expertise and “get-it-done” leadership style as one of three African American women to lead California’s efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A major challenge for Richardson was, “being thrust into a situation,” to fight the pandemic and find new ways to “get things done in an environment in which we never imagined,” she said.
“The biggest challenge to us has been: How do we keep state government working effectively and continuing to deliver services efficiently,” said Richardson.
Despite the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, Richardson saw an opportunity to support legislation that enabled Californians to make a smooth transition to work-from-home and homeschooling policies. The operation’s team also implemented the governor’s plans to manage $7.6 billion in COVID-19 relief funds, $6.6 billion for state schools, and $30 million in grants to support local organizations.
“The biggest win was that people did what they needed to continue moving forward during one of the biggest shifts our state has seen,” said Richardson.
The State of California has partnered with various community-based organizations, leaders, and businesses, a unique approach to the pandemic, in efforts to promote equity, she said.
“In everything we do, we have to be thoughtful about all of the different situations that we find people in,” said Richardson. “I think the state has just done an amazing job of really thinking about being thoughtful and trying to make sure that the approaches and the things that we do meet people where they are.”
The state’s operations team continues to evaluate progress through data-tracking and managing collaborative efforts with community partners to make sure the state achieves its desired outcomes, she said.
Richardson discussed racial equity in the healthcare system with medical experts and leaders in the Black and Latino caucuses, as part of Gov. Newsom’s plans to provide community clinics and health centers with COVID-19 testing and vaccines.
“I’m very passionate about allocating more vaccines to our communities that are mostly populated by Black and Brown people,” said Richardson. “I am very much committed to using my voice and the platform I’ve been blessed with to make sure that I do everything I can to help those in need.”
Vaccine hesitancy fueled by misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 has made it hard for the state to reach vulnerable populations in low-income areas, according to state officials. However, community leaders expressed concerns regarding access to adequate health care, COVID-19 testing, vaccine distribution.
“We’re leveraging trusted advisors, using people in the community that the communities listened to the most,” Sec. Richardson said. “We’re looking at all the different strategies we can employ that are most comfortable and familiar to those in diverse communities so that they can feel comfortable about getting the vaccine.”
Among her list of impressive titles, Richardson is a proud mother of two, an enthusiastic dog owner and wife to her husband of 23 years, who are the anchor to her sanity and peace, she said.
“I have an amazing family that is very supportive,” Richardson said. “I am very blessed to have a beautiful family that keeps me balanced.”
Although balance is hard for any leader, Richardson said her operations team has pushed her to accomplish California’s objectives in serving communities statewide. California’s leaders still have a long road ahead to achieve its goal of overcoming the pandemic and safely reopening the state.
“There’s so much to do, we joke and say every day is Monday in the state of California. But I have the most extraordinary colleagues who have been a huge support,” said Richardson.
During a time when an all-out effort is underway to get Californians vaccinated, a few women leaders in California are leading the charge to reach the communities hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, including Black families in “hard-to-reach” areas across the state.
Kimberley Goode, senior vice president of External Affairs for Blue Shield of California is one of those Black women in on the frontlines.
Blue Shield of California is the state’s “third-party administrator” as California ramps up its push to get its 40 million residents vaccinated. Goode says the company, with headquarters in Oakland, has taken a number of steps to support the state’s goal to get vaccines to all Californians – particularly those who have been disproportionately impacted — in a way that is safe, equitable and swift. Blue Shield’s provider network boasts more than 1,200 vaccination sites in California, including community clinics, multi-county entities, hospital systems, medical groups, pharmacies and others.
“The state makes final allocation decisions. The state makes all decisions around eligibility,” says Goode. “Our job is to make sure that the robust network that we’ve built is able to get that vaccine to the providers who are throughout every community in the state of California – to reach every zip code.”
Goode says their distribution efforts target areas in the state where data shows there are higher incidents of infection and death. “Those are the places we really want to double down on and make sure that we have more vaccines there, more quickly,” she said. “We make sure we partner with local community clinics.
“Our goal is two reach 3 million doses per week by March,” Goode added.
A public-relations specialist, Goode’s position with Blue Shield of California puts her in charge of communication and outreach on behalf of the nonprofit that generates more than $20 billion in annual revenue and serves more than 4 million members in commercial, individual, and government markets.
“There is a lot of concern about the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and, in particular, the African American community,” says Goode. “One of the things that should give comfort to people in this process is that there are a lot of people who care about equity, and two state leaders I work with, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris and Secretary Yolanda Richardson – they are two very important voices that are ensuring that equity is at the forefront of the decision-making process, and the implementation of the vaccine distribution.”
She has more than 25 years of communications experience with several global companies, including Kellogg’s, Prudential Financial, American Express, and Allstate. She also spent time as the vice president of Corporate Communications and Corporate Affairs at Northwestern Mutual, where she was responsible for leading the company’s internal and external communications strategy.
In the summer of May 2017, Goode joined Blue Shield of California to provide strategic leadership in corporate communications, government affairs, and corporate citizenship. She is also responsible for building relationships that help advance the nonprofit health plan’s mission.
“If that’s not enough titles, I get to work on the communication, education, and equity workstream for the third-party administration work that we’re doing on the behalf of the state for the vaccination program,” said Goode, who chairs Blue Shield of California’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leadership Council.
Goode is active professionally and in the community with a number of organizations, including the Executive Leadership Council, the Bay Area Council, Children Now Leadership Council and California Women Lead Advisory Council, Jack and Jill of America, Inc., and The Links, Inc.
At home, Goode says she has been working from home and sheltering in a “four-generation family bubble” with her husband, her two daughters, her 75-year-old mother and her 95-year-old grandmother.
“The silver lining of this pandemic has been that it has really helped me to reflect on what matters most and prioritize my time with my family – to focus on the things that are meaningful. We engage in some old fun activities. We play “Black Panther Monopoly.” It’s a board game that is a ton of fun. Just having fun with family in ways that we used to take for granted.”
But the greatest reward of her work right now, Goode says, is working for a “mission-driven company.”
“This is work that enables us to help every Californian,” she said. It is very gratifying to know that when I wake up and come to work every day (even though it is in my living room), it is not focused on ‘how I can help Blue Shield today.” It is focused on “how can Blue Shield help Californians across the state.’”