Reciprocity in Relationships: Q&A with Seth Kirby

At Group Health Foundation, we believe that communities know what they need to improve health, and we are dedicated to engaging the wisdom of communities to prioritize, design, and support collective approaches. Board member Seth Kirby draws upon his experiences working with identity- and place-based communities to talk about the Foundation’s endeavors.

Seth KirbyQ: Can you share about your experiences working with communities and how those experiences are relevant to Group Health Foundation?

Throughout my career, I’ve been focused on identity- and place-based community work. What I’ve learned is really a perspective around ways we can broaden our approach to community engagement. Often people think just about a physical or geographic location. Yet, someone in Spokane may hold the same identity as someone in Tacoma and share similar experiences. That’s where identity work can come in. The identities that people hold across Washington state are many and varied. I also like to bring forward the perspectives and questions I hear from youth, which can help the Foundation think about issues in new ways and identify solutions for moving forward.

Q: You grew up in a rural community, attending a one-room school with no running water. How has that experience shaped you and your work?

Growing up on a small farm in a very rural community meant we had to get to know each other and rely on our neighbors in ways you don’t living in a city. It gave me an appreciation for differences—people had different opinions, beliefs, and identities. Though, at end of day, everyone in the community had to come together to survive and make it. It also sparked creativity to navigate challenges in different ways. For example, when I was in third grade, we had four people in our school. How do you play a game of kickball with four people? In my work today, I continue to draw upon those experiences—appreciation for diversity, creativity, and understanding the interdependence we all have on one another.

Q: What are key lessons you’ve learned along the way that are pertinent to Group Health Foundation’s mission and work?

I’ve learned is that it’s my responsibility to ensure those with additional layers of vulnerability or marginalization are lifted up and have opportunities to pursue the same things that I have.

Another lesson is that it’s important to talk with people in identity- or placed-based communities about their experiences and what they need, versus applying an evidence-based framework. Because all too often, we look to data or research to back up a particular approach, but there’s often not data that is relevant or can be used within a particular community.

I’ve also learned about place-based work, in particular, that there is a tremendous opportunity to invest in smaller, more rural communities that tend to not have the same access to resources. Rather than applying approaches from urban settings, we need to look to smaller communities for their insights about what will work best in their community.

Q: Of the Foundation’s evolving equity agreements, is there one that feels especially important to keep in mind with engaging communities?

The one I’ve been most focused on and where I have the most opportunity for ongoing learning is our agreement to recognize the significant impact that racism has on people throughout our country and here in Washington state. This agreement must be considered in everything we do—who is being invited to a meeting, who is being brought forward as candidates, what are we funding, and how the organizations we’re working with are focused on ending racism.

Another equity agreement is being mindful of our power dynamics. We have to keep communities at the center of our work, because it’s communities that hold the knowledge, not us.

Q: The Foundation aims to engage communities in meaningful ways. How does it do that? What does it feel like?

I’ll share an example through my work at Oasis Youth Center. About 10 years ago, we were going through a process to define our model. We recognized we were led by youth, but not youth-led. We defined ourselves as a youth-adult partnership, meaning a place where youth and adults can come together for shared learning and action. By partnership, there’s a real sense of reciprocity.

At Group Health Foundation, I believe there’s the same commitment to reciprocity and building meaningful and lasting relationships. I think we’ll be achieving true engagement if communities are able to make decisions about and prioritize their needs, and that we’re funding those priorities defined by communities. Also, that there is reciprocity in learning—that we are learning with communities and not building one-way transactional relationships, but transformational relationships, where all entities involved are changed for the better.