Voices Lifting the Community with Sarah Hobbs, CEO of Alliance for Healthier Communities

Voices Lifting the Community with Sarah Hobbs, CEO of Alliance for Healthier Communities

For this special series, Voices Lifting the Community, HIROC is partnering with the Alliance for Healthier Communities to highlight the work of several of the presenters at their online primary healthcare conference in June.

Show Summary

Today we’re talking with Sarah Hobbs, CEO of the Alliance, a role she assumed in the fall of 2020. Sarah has worked in community health for over 20 years, most recently as Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Toronto. Being an advocate for health equity for underserved populations is difficult work but Sarah draws inspiration from the Alliance’s 110 member centres who actively support marginalized people across Ontario.

She’s also uplifted by the new ways she’s seeing partners collaborating across the system during the pandemic – and the possibilities that now exist to build back a stronger healthcare system that works for everyone.

Mentioned in this Episode


Narrator (Intro): Imagine you could step inside the minds of Canada's healthcare leaders, glimpse their greatest fears, strongest drivers, and what makes them tick. Welcome to Healthcare Change Makers, a podcast where we talk to leaders about the joys and challenges of driving change and working with partners to create the safest healthcare system.

Ellen Gardner: Welcome to Voices Lifting the Community, a special series from HIROC. I'm Ellen Gardner with Philip De Souza. We're delighted to partner with the Alliance for Healthier Communities and highlight the work of several of their presenters in advance of their online primary healthcare conference in June.

Today, we're talking with Sarah Hobbs, CEO of the Alliance, a role she assumed in the fall of 2020. Sarah has worked in community health for over 20 years, most recently as Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Toronto. Being an advocate for health equity for underserved populations is difficult work, but Sarah draws inspiration from the Alliance's 110 member centres who actively support marginalized people across Ontario.

She's also uplifted by the new ways she's seeing partners collaborating across the system during the pandemic and the possibilities that now exist to build back a stronger healthcare system that works for everyone. Welcome, Sarah, to Voices Lifting the Community. It's great to have you on.

Sarah Hobbs: Great. Thank you so much for having me.

Ellen Gardner: This is the first year the Alliance is holding its conference online. Are you excited about this change?

Sarah Hobbs: There's something very powerful about our in-person conferences when we all come together in one place, and while meeting in person absolutely is the ideal for collaboration for our sector, I remain really excited about the possibilities this year's opportunity presents, using a unique virtual platform. I think one of the biggest advantages is that it means more people can participate who may not have been able to participate in the past. So having our conference, Power and Community, go virtual has meant that we're able to invite people to speak, like Dr. Theresa Tam, who may not have been able to attend in-person given the fact that she's so busy with her day-to-day work and travelling to Toronto for a conference might not have been the best thing for her. But because it is virtual, she can pop on for the hour that she's going to be with us and then pop off and get back to her day-to-day. So, yes, I'm excited that we're able to push the boundaries with both our speakers and our audience this year, so that we can gather more widely.

Ellen Gardner: One of the themes of the conference is asking delegates to imagine what a redesigned healthcare system could look like. That sounds like a really wonderfully creative idea, and it could lead to all kinds of interesting discussion. What are you hoping for with this exercise?

Sarah Hobbs: We're really trying to set up moments where people can connect. I think we hear that from our member centres from right across the province, that the thing that was missing this year are those moments to connect and talk and have some authentic participation and conversation. So I think that we're hoping to have Alliance staff in almost every session that we're offering, and we're hoping to be able to collate some of the key themes that come out, and we're in a really interesting position as we move towards the election time for both provincial and, we're hearing, federal government. So we're able to draw on those experiences at the conference in a way that I think it's different than years in the past, where we have our conference, it's incredible, we all feel galvanized, we feel ready to take things back to our centres, and then that's sort of it in a different way than right now.

We can take the things that we talk about and the things that we learn and shift it into election strategies and shift it into conversations that we're all having in different ways across the province and at the provincial level, and then at the federal level around how do we build back better.

Ellen Gardner: You've been working in community health for many years and so advocacy and building awareness and education has been a huge part of your life. Sarah. Being an advocate is a tough role and what do you find works? For you personally, how has being an advocate? When it's been successful, what do you think has been the key there?

Sarah Hobbs: Well, it's finding that sweet spot, right? Of trying to find where your values, philosophy, your desired outcomes fit with what other folks that you're collaborating with and with decision-makers. I mean, I sort of alluded to it in the question you asked previously about this might be our moment and I feel very strongly that it could be our moment to affect real and meaningful change, because people are recognizing that health equity needs to be a core component of our health system planning and beyond, and that without it, should the worst happen and we face another pandemic, we're going to be in the same place, seeing the same inequitable and devastating and completely avoidable effects for certain populations.

Ellen Gardner: What motivated you to get involved in this work?

Sarah Hobbs: I've been the ED of a member centre for many years and in the sector you mentioned for several years. I won't say how many. Long time. I think what is exciting to me is moving from a local organization to trying to effect real provincial change. I think doing that with a health equity lens and an anti-racism, anti-oppression framework is really what motivates me and the privilege that I feel to be able to work with our member centres, 110 member centres, from across the province in the work that they're doing that is so unique in the health system, in many regards they are what actually are inspiring me in this role to want to do better for them and hearing about their stories, the communities they serve, the way that they work with their communities to co-create responses, it's inspirational for sure, and motivational for me to be trying really hard to change health policy, advocate for resources for our members to make sure that they're able to do what they do on a day to day, which literally changes lives, and lives that are often forgotten and not cared about.

Ellen Gardner: If there was something we could do today to create a just and inclusive health system and something that wouldn't get bogged down in bureaucracy and budgets, what do you think that would be?

Sarah Hobbs: Oh my gosh, there's so many things. I mean, and especially what you say by not get bogged down in bureaucracy and budgets, that's definitely been a learning curve for me over the last six months to know how much those things impact real change. But I think that there are three actions that could be taken that could make a difference. The first is anti-racism, anti-oppression and indigenous cultural safety training for all healthcare workers. It seems like a very easy win for me. If we were to do that across the province, that would change lives.

The second is embedding co-design and co-creation with community into healthcare planning and decision-making, especially as the system transforms and newly created Ontario health teams play a bigger role. I think that that could be done easily with a big impact.

The third would be our health system partners agree to collect race-based and socio-demographic data and use that data to inform planning. So if they were to do this without waiting for the government to mandate it, just because it is absolutely the right thing to do in this moment in time, that would have a huge impact, I think, on the way that our health system delivers care, who gets access to care and the outcomes that they experience. So those are my three wishlists right now.

Ellen Gardner: There's so many barriers to health equity across the population and I don't have to tell you what those are, but what gives you hope for things getting better when you look around. Are you optimistic about anything?

Sarah Hobbs: Yeah, I mean, I think that what I'm really optimistic about is the fact that throughout the pandemic, I've seen our member centres and others collaborate in new ways, right across the system in different new ways. I mean, I've seen some barriers to that too, but I think that more often than not people are coming together to try to do the right things and that gives me hope for ... I think once you establish relationships and I think that everything in our lives is so relational and in the health system, it's relational. I think that once we have established some of those relationships going through these difficult times together, it gives me hope that as we build back a new health system, that those relationships will continue to exist in open possibilities for healthcare transformation and seamless care throughout the system for folks navigating it. I think that there's a moment here that we all are experiencing where we could do something different.

Ellen Gardner: You certainly assumed your role in an interesting time and I'm sure you didn't plan on taking this job in the middle of a pandemic, but how has it been for you the last few months?

Sarah Hobbs: I mean, it's been incredible for sure and it has been, I would say, actually a bit bittersweet in that ... I think that in many ways it has been a smooth transition. I feel like I've sort of come home in this role to a certain extent, but it has been really challenging, absolutely, hearing the stories that our member centres share with us about the disproportional impacts that the pandemic has had on the communities that they serve. It's been hard to see our member centres being pulled in so many different directions. They're supporting testing, providing wraparound support, implementing COVID-at-home monitoring programs, leading vaccination, all doing what they're meant to be doing on the day-to-day, which is providing necessary primary care, mental health support, and other programming and health promotion activities.

Sarah Hobbs: At times I have felt helpless and frustrated with the system that we're working in to see them so stretched and doing so much. So that has been challenging. Then on the flip side of that, it has been an absolute privilege to support the sector and like anyone starting a new job during the pandemic, I really miss the opportunity to meet with people in person in those sidebar conversations before a meeting starts, get to know a little bit about them. I think that's the piece that I feel a bit regretful. It's hard to join an organization as a new leader just in general, but then to do that all virtually and heading straight into Zoom meetings. We've tried to create some space for meet and greet, but it's challenging. But I feel confident that we will be in person sometime soon.

Ellen Gardner: It probably helps that you sat on the board of the organization for a few years, so you were certainly familiar with the Alliance and all the work underway.

Sarah Hobbs: Absolutely. It is. I can't imagine having done this without being in the sector, so I know who a lot of the folks are across the province already. Then also knowing what the Alliance's have been doing and knowing some of the staff, I can't imagine walking into it without having had that experience. I feel super lucky that I had that behind me

Ellen Gardner: During the pandemic, our thinking has been pretty short-term and focused on the now, but I'm sure as you look forward, you're thinking, "You know what? I can start to think. Maybe there's a vision I can put in place in the long-term and that there can be a longer view of things." Is that the way you're thinking now?

Sarah Hobbs: I'm really excited about that and I actually have. People keep asking me, "What's your vision for the Alliance?" I actually always say, "I don't have a vision for the Alliance," because it needs to be our member centre vision for the Alliance. So I'm really excited that this summer we're entering into our strategic planning phase and we're hoping to launch a new strategic plan in June '22, and being able to engage with member centres with our system partners, with decision-makers, to influence what our vision, our strategic directions, what we need to be held accountable to as a sector and as an organization. I'm really, really excited to begin those conversations and develop that plan in collaboration with others and to see what we can accomplish together.

Philip De Souza: I've noticed personally ... I feel I've been fortunate to speak to many people over the pandemic, and no matter who we speak to recently, and Ellen can probably jump in here too, everyone has a ... It feels like whatever community or part of the sector they're in, they have this renewed sense of ... I don't know. I wouldn't say hope, but perhaps it's a renewed sense of wanting to be active and wanting to make change. So where do you feel that you're helping the community with the Alliance and its partners and its members? Can you see that passion, that drive, to use everyone's voice to lift the community?

Sarah Hobbs: I think it's a great question and I'm happy that you're hearing it in your circles and who you're speaking to as well. I think when we've gone through something like we've just gone where so much choice is taken away from us, it's hard for us to navigate the world in the way that we did before and then seeing how the health system became overwhelmed, seeing all of the things that we've just spoken about, all the disproportional effects and all of those things at play, I think it motivates folks in a different way.

I just came out of a session actually, right before this meeting, where primary care partners, Community Health Ontario partners, so home and community care, mental health, long-term care, primary care, Indigenous primary care, we're all together talking about, "So what would a new world look like? What are your member centres saying? What are my member centres saying? What do we need to include when we're all talking collectively to decision-makers? Are there things that we can advocate for together to see real change?"

Sarah Hobbs: So we just launched a new program for the Alliance called Community Health Equity Builders Program, which is a way for people who are not our members to join on the movement, to learn about health equity in healthcare, and to get access to information and discounted conference rates and things. Because we've heard that people are calling and saying, "What can I do? How can I be a part of it? What needs to look different? How can I contribute to that?" So we've just created this new program for people to be able to join and to be able to hear more about it and get involved in different ways.

Philip De Souza: Oh, definitely exciting, and the fact that you've created that program, that's even more exciting because it enables more people to have that access and to be part of the solution, no matter who they are. It's not something about, "Oh, no, you're not part of this club so you can't have a say." It's all about, "Oh, you know what? We're part of this club together, so let's include everyone." That's great. I love it.

Sarah Hobbs: Yeah. We're an alliance, right? So that's what we were trying to build, is an alliance. So whether you're an organization and want to join, or just an individual person wanting to join, you can.

Ellen Gardner: I love the fact, Sarah, that you said when people ask you, "What's your vision?" and you say, "Well, I don't have a vision," that it's going to come from the members. I think it takes a bit of courage to sometimes challenge old assumptions and break down stereotypes and barriers. Do you feel courageous? Do you feel like that's an important quality to have in your role?

Sarah Hobbs: Yeah. When I think about problems or when I think about things, I'm always trying to figure out what is the problem we're trying to solve, so let's make sure that we're solving for the right thing. But also what haven't we thought about before and what have we tried in the past that might actually be the right solution now but didn't work before? So I feel like I'm not afraid to do something new at all. I'm also aware that I don't want to change too many things at once coming to this organization as a new person because things have been established, but I do feel like now's the moment for us to think, "Is there a better way to do this?" Just to even to have these discussions or to bring people together or do we need to bring different people together?

Sarah Hobbs: So I do feel really open to that and excited by that actually to be doing things differently, but also mindful that too much change can be sometimes too much change for folks, especially when they're feeling tired, having come through a pandemic and have had to change their entire lives. So it's a bit of a fine balance.

Ellen Gardner: Thank you so much, Sarah. It's just been great talking to you and we really wish you just all the best at the conference and all your projects and the possibilities that are coming for the Alliance.

Sarah Hobbs: Thank you, and thank you so much for supporting the conference and being interested in this conversation. Really appreciate it.

Ellen Gardner: You have just been listening to Voices Lifting the Community, a special series produced by HIROC and the Alliance for Healthier Communities. Today our guest was Sarah Hobbs, the CEO of the Alliance. Stay tuned for more episodes of Voices Lifting the Community.

Thank you for listening. You can hear more episodes of Healthcare Change Makers on our website HIROC.com and on your favourite podcasting apps. If you like what you hear, please rate us or post a review. Healthcare Change Makers is recorded by HIROC's Communications and Marketing team and produced by Podfly Productions. Follow us on Twitter at @hirocgroup or email us at communications@hiroc.com. We'd love to hear from you.