Introducing Tiosha Bailey
The new executive director of Susan G. Komen Chicago shares her vision for the organization’s more inclusive future.

No two days are alike for Tiosha Bailey, the new executive director of Susan G. Komen Chicago. Whether she’s meeting with donors or facilitating partnerships with community organizations, Bailey’s work requires a hands-on approach to growing Komen in the Chicagoland area. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Before joining Komen Chicago in June 2018, Bailey acquired her master’s degree and worked in a variety of local educational nonprofits. Most recently, she served as the deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, overseeing their health promotion bureau. At the end of her tenure, the bureau was a $15 million operation with 60 staff members working across the fields of substance use, mental health, violence prevention, and chronic disease. Bailey says her time at the Chicago Department of Public Health ignited her passion for women’s health. “Women’s health was a part of all of those service areas [at the Chicago Department of Public Health], but I wanted to stand out and align myself with an organization where their focus is women’s health,” she says.

One of Bailey’s top priorities at Komen Chicago is addressing the health and accessibility disparities in the city. “African-American women are dying at a 40 percent rate higher than their white counterparts, versus a city like New York where they’re a huge metropolis, and with their population, they have virtually no disparities,” she says. “I do think that it gets back to the systemic issues and the fragmentation that we have here, and […] instead of focusing on the individual, we have to look at the system as a whole.”

Komen Chicago will address such issues with plans like the Chicago Health Equity Initiative, a comprehensive breast health services system in Chicago. It will likely take some years for her vision to fully implement locally, but until then, Bailey will continue to hit the pavement. Here, she reveals more about what drew her to this role and what it means for women to take a stand for their health.

Why did you join Komen Chicago?

I would say that all the things I’ve worked on with my public health career has actually positioned me well for this space, and this feels right from an emotional and professional perspective. Definitely, like many others, I’m personally impacted by breast cancer. My grandmother is a breast cancer survivor. I have an aunt celebrating her 15th year of survivorship. So I’ve seen it up close and personal. I’ve also lost some people along the way who have been impacted by cancer. I’ve always been passionate about women’s health, so to be in a leadership position, to be able to make a difference in a city that means so much to me—it’s my home—it’s such an honor. And I feel like I can make some real change, so I’m always drawn to roles where I feel like I can make a difference.

What about women’s health interests you?

I recognize that women are usually caregivers. Oftentimes we care for the whole family and our own health takes a backseat, so I’ve always been enamored with empowering women to take a stand when it comes to their health. Women are really good at connecting with each other. I know there are some disease states where women just fare much worse. And we think of breast cancer as being one of the top killers of women, and we think about heart disease, and why is that? Since I started my public health career, I’ve been interested in figuring out how I can be at the table and drive change.

What do you think you can take from past experiences and bring to Komen Chicago?

When we talk about diseases we have to think about the whole person, right? And think about systems in which people reside in. A lot of the interventions that we put out on the streets right now are really geared towards the individual, and not really addressing the systemic issues. There’s some real gaps. So what I’ve learned is that public health is a comprehensive approach. It addresses the systemic issues, it addresses the individual, and the needs when we talk about transportation or when we talk about childcare. It’s all of these things and those systems working together to really be able to move when we talk about disparities.

What are some of the systemic issues facing Chicago in particular?

In terms of gaps when we talk about breast health—funding is huge; we know that some agencies have dollars, but they’re strapped. So I would say funding with the state level is a big piece of it. And reimbursement rates are really, really low for the state of Illinois. Some of the services we know are really vital to survivorship for women are not reimbursable. Like navigation services. Even though nurses have to go through certifications to be nurse navigators, it’s not a reimbursable service. But we know and we have data to show that once a woman is diagnosed, if they’re linked with a navigator and able to make those appointments, to have someone actually sit with them and move them through the continuum, it shows some gains in terms of survivorship.

Other gaps, I would say the fragmentation in the system. Most systems, if not all, have electronic health record systems that don’t talk to each other. You have to get your mammogram over here, you have to get your diagnostics over here, and maybe you need to go over here to get surgery, but how do we really ease the communication so all of those clinicians are working together to develop a true individualized treatment plan to ensure better outcomes. Collaboration is also a systemic issue. And while we are very narrowly focused on breast cancer, our job is to serve in the role of convener, for one. Two, to talk about how addressing breast cancer is under the umbrella of health equity. Which we all want. Like all partners, at the end of the day, we’re all working to try to meet individuals where they are and give them the resources they need to live healthy lives. How do we do that? How do we show the data to say, if you address a woman’s breast health it also helps impact another chronic disease, like heart disease or obesity. And that’s a role for Susan G. Komen to play in working with our partners.

What does working smarter mean for you?

For me, it’s about getting out, talking to folks, trying to make sure I have a real sense of what the needs are. I think we oftentimes are so well-versed in our own fan box and feel like we know what’s going on and what people need, but if we don’t get out and talk to these wide range of stakeholders, we’re not able to see from different perspectives what the true issues are. Some of the things that we see as public health issues are really just scratching the surface, and [are actually] symptoms of a deeper issue. And the deeper issues are the ones that you really want to wrap your arms and your resources around. You have to understand the need, align the resources to the need, and bring those key partnerships and relationships along. When we traditionally talk about health care, it’s just the hospital systems or it’s just the community-based organization, but it’s also the corporations, right? It’s also government, it’s also academia—the folks who are actually doing the research. So how do we tell the stories across those different benches and bring everyone towards a vision to change?

How do you see your work changing?

When we talk about Komen 2.0, it’s evolving so that we are considered a go-to, trusted partner within the Chicagoland area. So when people think about breast cancer, they think about Susan G. Komen Chicago and see us as a resource. This is what we do, this is the value we bring, and this is why you should connect with us. We can get you what you need, and if we can’t do it, we have partners that are on our bench that we can connect with you.

How long do you envision this taking?

We are really focusing on bridging the gap between the community and research. A lot of people don’t even know about the wonderful research in breast cancer happening in their backyards and how that connects them to clinical trials. There’s underrepresentation of African-American women in those clinical trials, which means when [medical professionals] have an advancement, those advancements don’t necessarily work to fit our genomic profile. When we talk about the system’s transformation, we look at it on a trajectory of a three- to five-year kind of timeline.

Who are the community partners?

When we talk about community partners, it’s the federally qualified health centers that provide direct services, it’s the navigation programs, it’s also folks that do case-management services. It’s any organization that is in a community providing direct services, that can support a woman throughout the continuum of care. That could be someone providing Pilates or yoga, because we know stress management is also very important. It’s also the community-based mental health provider, because we know that mental health is so important in treating the whole woman as she’s moving through this process. So it’s mental health, it’s the yoga, it’s the primary care providers, it’s the folks that do survivorship groups. So we work with organizations like Gilda’s Club, to be able to have those resources available for women.

Have you found challenges that you weren’t anticipating?

The real challenge is that there’s so much to be done. Or saying, OK, this is our starting place. It doesn’t mean that this is where we’ll end. This is an adaptive challenge. Adaptive challenges mean you don’t have the solution from the start. You have to level expectations. Everyone wants to jump straight to the solution. There’s got to be some way-finding, so I think it’s a delicate situation. We know where we want to go, but how do we get partners onboard around the same vision, and how do we show value as we move along?

How do you get partners on board?

The good thing is I’m new, so it’s a great opportunity to sit down and introduce myself. I’ve known a lot of the partners that Komen has worked with in the past, but it’s that one-on-one, saying, ‘Hey, this is our vision, this is what we think we want to do.’ Just recently, we pulled together our team of hospital systems (University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago, Sinai Hospital, Stroger Hospital, and three FQHCs: Erie Family Health Center, Friend Family, and Access Community Health), and had a call to say this is what we’ve learned; let’s talk about next steps. The great news is that Komen is in a good spot to be a convener, because we don’t provide direct services. There’s no real competition for us, and we’re not vying for any one system. And we also have a national presence, so whatever we learn here in Chicago has the potential to be scaled in other cities. We are one of ten cities with the highest disparity rates around mortality deaths for African-American women. I believe we’re number four when it comes to disparities, and I think that speaks a lot to the potential of what we’re able to do.

What are some of your personal goals?

I feel like all my personal goals are wrapped up in everything I want to do for the organization. Komen is small but mighty, but there’s been a lot of turnover from a leadership standpoint. In the last five or six years they’ve had five executive directors. So a personal goal of mine is to bring about some stability. Another personal goal for the organization would be to grow. Right now, we’re sitting at about $2 million; I want to get us to be a $3 million or higher organization. Because it then positions us to be able to put out grants.

Women taking a stand for their own health – what does this mean for you?

I think it’s education, getting out to the community to let women know the importance of early detection. Letting them know where the services are; so knowledge is power, and I think a lot of women, for different reasons, decide to engage in the system or not, or they’ve had bad experiences. But if they had the information or had the social support to be able to really get in and get linked to a primary care physician that they trusted, I think we would see a real difference here.

For me, being the first African-American woman sitting in this seat, I take great responsibility in recognizing that our community sometimes wants to see themselves in an organization. So this is a great opportunity for me to go out there and say I’m committed; this is my personal mission and this aligns with everything that I’ve been working for my whole career.


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