Tillman Scholar Voices: Building Healthy Communities through Empathy and Equity with Kendra Smith

Blog, Tillman Scholar Voices | 08/06/2020

“This moment has been important for a lot of people. There’s this continuum….for some people, it’s been an awakening. For a lot of people, it’s been an existence. They’ve been living in it for a long time. The time now is to move from symbolic works, performative work, to doing the work.”

Our Tillman Scholar Voices blog and video series amplifies the work of Tillman Scholars who actively work toward equity and justice and showing us every day the importance of leading through action. This week we highlight Kendra Smith and her work in community health and health equity.

2009 Tillman Scholar Kendra Smith’s passion is building healthy communities. She is currently the director of community engagement for the University of Houston College of Medicine and Humana Institute for Integrated Systems Science, where she is responsible for both entities’ strategic approach to community engagement and community health improvement programs.

Part of the inaugural class of Tillman Scholars in 2009, Kendra helped pave the way for the now nearly 700 Tillman  Scholars who are civic and community leaders across disciplines of science, medicine, public policy, law and leadership.

“The program staff of the Pat Tillman Foundation was very small at the time, but they were very community-focused,” she said. “And so I very much remember staying in contact with them, talking to them frequently, not really about the scholarship, but just about stuff that was going on with me. And this whole idea of growing the foundation and what that actually meant.”

Over the past ten years, Kendra has been closely involved with the foundation, helping them build out a selection process that represents the diversity of the military and makes sure there is space and opportunity for everyone in the application cycle.

A Family Tradition of Service

Kendra’s inspiration for supporting communities goes back to her youth. Her father was in the U.S. Army for 20 years, and her mother was a civil servant in the Department of Defense for 30. Although the family moved around, they all lived together in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

“Living in a military town, being in a military family, I think fundamentally I grew up understanding community and the importance of community, and just being around other people, supporting other people like that was a part of our life of being in the Army,” she said.

As she grew up, she looked to those around her for examples of support and encouragement.

“There’s an incredible amount of empathy that you will find among military families. I remember when I was a kid, my dad, it was my birthday. So he wanted to send a clown and cupcakes to the class. But then there was some community things happening where a few parents weren’t around, and he didn’t want to make the other kids feel bad,” she said. “So he found a better way to make everybody feel really included. Because he understood that family is most important, and that taking care of your kids is important, but also helping and supporting others and their family is also your duty.”

A Career for Others

The support, empathy and community that Kendra experienced growing up in Oklahoma inspired her education and career in a number of ways. After finishing a master’s degree in her home state, she went on to pursue a Ph.D.

As a doctor, Kendra’s work took her into community health, a field she sees as fully patient-centered.

“My approach to working with communities on health promotion and education is really centered around understanding what people want for themselves, not what I want for them,” she said. “And that has been a consistent philosophy for me in doing community work for all of these years.”

In her work she sees the constant intersection of systemic failures with the health and livelihoods of the communities she supports.

“My work in community health is really focused on what social determinants of health are contributing to people’s poor health,” she said. “And a lot of those social determinants of health have a lot to do with inequities that a lot of us experience on a regular basis. And those inequities range from racism, food insecurity, healthcare system challenges, employment, housing, it runs the gamut. And so really being thoughtful about those challenges and understanding that when wanting to promote health and enhance individual’s health and wellbeing, they’re being mindful that these inequities exist.”

Progress in This Present Moment

In 2020, as COVID-19 has spread and the fight for systemic justice has gripped the country, Kendra has seen the power and importance of her work magnified, not only in the present, but in coming to terms with the shadows of racism in the past.

“I work at a medical school, and when George Floyd was murdered, we had a big town hall session. And one of the physicians I work with was talking about how he remembered when he was in medical school in the 80s, how in the neighborhood he lived there happened to be quite a bit of police brutality against black youth in the neighborhood. He would just see it and feel helpless about it,” she said. “And a lot of people feel that way. A lot of people see it, and a lot of people know it and just feel helpless.”

She believes that we can move beyond this helplessness to true change. Although individuals are coming from a number of different journeys and experiences to the cause of justice and equality, there is opportunity for everyone to make an impact.

“The time now is really to move from symbolic works and performative works to actually doing the work. And the work is different for each of us. And I think it’s rooted in your skills, in your talents, in your passion. …You can really hurt progress by not being fully involved or fully engaged. So all that is to say is that I really hope that people take this opportunity to reflect and to act in really thoughtful and meaningful ways.”