Meet Karen Cunningham
Service drives Karen Cunningham’s life and career arc. The daughter of a Japanese-Hawaiian father and Yakama mother, she grew up as the oldest sibling with responsibility to jump in and help without being told. This deep teaching inspired a dedication to her community. So early in her career, she decided to leverage the skills she had to help the people around her. Her commitment to service comes from the belief that solutions exist so long as people and families have a way to make them a reality.
In her most recent role as economic development director for the Yakama Nation, she is an enrolled member, Karen connected people with access and training related to opening small businesses and financial literacy. She also oversaw the restart and expanded operation of the Yakama Nation’s tribal transit program that provides public transportation to anyone living in the area.
Her work with the Yakama Nation focused on quality of life, along with traditional economic development. The work wasn’t just limited to putting food on the table, having gas to drive to work, or securing childcare; it was also contingent on access to family and community histories. Shared knowledge—whether stories passed from generation to generation or technical skills from peer to peer—is how we build toward a shared future. For Karen, it is also a form of health equity.
“As tribal people, we talk about sovereignty and self-determination a lot,” Karen shares. “It’s always been about the ability of the people to decide what they think is best for them. Even within the tribe, what’s good for me may not be good for the next person. But people should have a chance to make decisions and take care of themselves the way they want to. Decisions are different for everybody, but they should have the ability to make those decisions and take action on it.”
With the caring support of her family, Karen joined the Group Health Foundation’s growing team in Tri-Cities as a program officer. She is most excited about the prospect of connecting with people and organizations doing important work advancing equity and justice on behalf of their communities. In addition to her previous roles sharpening community solutions, Karen brings a unique perspective having worked for an organization the Foundation supports.
When she first encountered GHF in that role, she was impressed by the Foundation’s practice of providing unrestricted funding, inherently trusting organizations on how they use their resources. The Foundation’s capacity and willingness to reflect on, acknowledge, and adapt its relationship to power in ways that best serve grantee organizations and, ultimately, the people they serve also resonated with Karen.
“Group Health removed those constraints and said, ‘We want you to use it to continue whatever work you’re doing. We trust that you’re going to use it in the best way you need to for your community.’ And that was amazing to me because you don’t get that a lot,” shares Karen.
A resident of Zillah, Karen enjoys spending time traveling and relaxing with her two daughters and husband, who share her enthusiasm for softball. Karen is also an avid maker and has been refining her beadwork skills and learned to crochet. She is also excited about her recently acquired vintage sewing machine, with which she plans to indulge her creativity.