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Fighting the Good (Policy) Fight for Babies and Families

Johanna Lister, Director of Policy, HealthySteps

Hi, I’m Jo! Officially Johanna Lister, director of policy for HealthySteps. I have the pleasure of working closely with my HealthySteps team, of course, and increasingly, with the ZERO TO THREE Policy Center. I spend some of my time working to elevate issues related to HealthySteps into ZERO TO THREE’s broader federal policy work and thinking through how we can create and promote policies that advance our mission to transform the promise of pediatric care for babies, toddlers, and their families.

Director of Policy, HealthySteps

I am also a lawyer, although I never wanted to be a “real” lawyer. When I was a young professional, getting a master’s degree in public health focusing on health policy, my mentors were attorneys and I coveted their knowledge. (Of course, this was in DC, where basically everyone is a lawyer!). Even though much of law school turned out to be the least intellectually stimulating years of my life, it taught me how to think in a different way. I think the training in our adversarial legal system also suited what my husband lovingly refers to as my “professional rage.” I am often struck by how much I use battle language—talking about the fight for policies to support the most overburdened and under-resourced among us. But to me, in our current environment, that is what policy work is: a knock-down, drag-out fight.

But to me, in our current environment, that is what policy work is: a knock-down, drag-out fight.

In addition to all of my concerns and fears over the state of our country, I will confess that I find myself intensely uneasy about the next chapter professionally. The outcome of the elections, presidential and congressional, will play an outsized role in shaping our strategy for advancing policies that serve young children and their families. Will it be a time of hope, excitement, creativity, and productivity? Or will it continue to be a fight? I work hard to remind myself that there are gradations; as a mentor of mine often says to me, “Jo, beware the binary.” There can be small victories in challenging times. There can be setbacks under the best administrations. This is the attitude that I am really hoping to bring to my work. Oddly, perhaps, what comforts me is the shared sense of deep disappointment and rage that I feel among so many who are with me in this fight. While I don’t always feel optimistic about my ability to contribute to making the changes we need to see in this country, I am heartened and encouraged by the passionate voices that surround me.

The other thing that helps me immensely is stories from HealthySteps families. I keep going back to one story from a provider at Montefiore [Health System, Bronx, NY] who shared a heartbreaking anecdote about a mother who came in with her baby and young child; the family was starving. The fact that this can happen once, let alone that it happens continuously and systematically in the richest country in the world, boggles the mind. But these stories are immensely motivating to me because when that family walked into Montefiore they were starving, and when they left they had baby formula and a connection to a food bank. Sometimes policy work can feel very disconnected from the people we are trying to help and the systems we are trying to change. Both ZERO TO THREE and HealthySteps do a tremendous job at reminding all of us, regardless of our job duties and functions, why we are all here fighting for babies.

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