…Give your love back where you get it. Publishing a book and pushing new ideas brings with it a lot of feedback, both good and bad. Her advice means to focus on the good, and that is a strategy that has really worked for us. Early on we had people who just fell in love with the book, Anna, Age Eight, and we invested a lot of energy and time in working with those people, and that led us to where we are now with an institute at a university. There were also many people who didn’t like what we were doing, but we have found it is a much better use of our time not to focus much of our energy on those people.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Katherine Ortega Courtney.
Dr. Katherine Ortega Courtney is the co-author of the groundbreaking book Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras which serves as an urgently needed call-to-action to end the pandemic and address the economic instability, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), family trauma, social adversity and lack of timely, accessible medical and mental health care. Dr. Courtney is an advocate for strengthening continuous quality improvement in all family-serving organizations, from health care to transportation, to create a seamless system of health and safety in each county. She promotes a data-driven, cross-sector and technology-empowered county capacity-building process.
She is also the co-author, with Dominic Cappello, of 100% Community: Ensuring 10 Vital Services for Surviving and Thriving to guide local leadership in every state and county in their work designing fully-resourced cities and towns where vital services like health care, among ten surviving and thriving services, meet the needs of all families and community members. Courtney and Cappello are also co-authors of Anna, Age Eight: The data-driven prevention of childhood trauma and maltreatment, which serves as a long overdue call-to-action for each state to end adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), trauma, social adversity and health disparities. Dr. Courtney has a PhD in Experimental Psychology from Texas Christian University, where she studied at the Institute of Behavioral Research. Dr. Courtney worked with the State of New Mexico for eight years, first as the Juvenile Justice Epidemiologist, then as Bureau Chief of the Child Protective Services Research, Assessment and Data Bureau. Dr. Courtney championed and co-developed the New Mexico Data Leaders for Child Welfare program, which was implemented in NYC, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. She has worked in policy, research and has led community initiatives through her work at the Santa Fe Community Foundation and the New Mexico Early Childhood Development Partnership.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in Espanola, New Mexico, a small town known mainly for its lowriders and high drug overdose rates. I grew up in a strong, supportive family with deep roots in Northern New Mexico. I felt safe and happy at home, but I was growing up in a place where the opportunity gap, historical inequities and poverty were a part of every aspect of life, including school. Both my brother and I had friends pass away at very young ages, and we saw many people struggling with substance abuse, diseases of despair, and our community was subject to a great deal of racism and scorn. I wanted to become a psychologist so that I could figure out how to prevent substance abuse, which I felt led to so many of the problems in my hometown. I studied substance abuse in graduate school and one of the most important things I learned was that I had the wrong assumption. It wasn’t the substance abuse that led to the historical inequities, social adversity and trauma, it was all of those things that led to the substance abuse, and it was all intertwined into a vicious cycle. After finishing my PhD, I thought that by working for government I would be able to help break that cycle. After working for state government for eight years, I realized that I could make more of an impact by leaving state government and freeing myself to research and write about the solutions that people who were working in government were too busy to discover.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
My co-author Dominic Cappello and I started out with the goal of improving child welfare, but we realized in order to do that effectively, the focus has to be on ensuring that parents have the opportunity to thrive in every community. In our first book, Anna, Age Eight, we had a chapter called “Why your zip code shouldn’t determine your destiny”. This chapter has become the basis for our institute and the two books we have written since. The point is that some families live in communities where they have easy access to everything they need (good schools, medical and behavioral health care, and other services) and many families live in neighborhoods where they do not have any support. Our vision is that if everyone, 100% of people had access to ten vital surviving and thriving services, this would not only prevent a great deal of childhood trauma, it would also prevent many of the things communities struggle with like homelessness and crime. We are trying to change the way people think about poverty, the role of local government, as well as individual’s role in their own community.
In general, people don’t usually think about how systems interact with each other to form communities that either thrive or struggle. When we worked in child protective services, there was rarely a focus on ensuring that the struggling families had access to the services they needed to improve their lives. In general, it was a system in which parents were instructed to connect with services and “fix yourself”. It might seem obvious that the system isn’t going to work if parents are unable to access the services they need. Many times, these services had nothing to do with parenting skills and more to do with basic survival, such as food and housing supports. But the people who worked in each of these services- food, housing, and child welfare were all too busy and overwhelmed to even think about how these services were connected. As we expanded our scope and continued or research, we realized that no entity was ensuring that the needed services were available and accessible. The Anna Age Eight Institute, based on the recommendations in the book, is the first institute funded by the state legislature to specifically focus on this. Our work brings together community members from all walks of life to collectively work toward ensuring that 100% of community members can thrive.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I completely thought that we would release the book Anna Age Eight and somehow, I guess magically, people would read it, take it to heart, and implement the recommendations we provided. Looking back on that idea, and how much work we ended up putting into awareness, getting the institute started, and now leading the institute, I realize how ludicrous that idea was. It seems to be a lesson I have to learn over and over again. I always assume and hope that good ideas will just be discovered, but the world simply doesn’t work like that. Getting new ideas out there takes a huge amount of effort, and the work is never done. I thought we reached some kind of finish line when we launched the Anna, Age Eight Institute, but of course I was wrong. If dramatically changing systems was easy, it would have already happened. My co-author and I talk a lot about how we may not even see the finished result of our initiative in our lifetimes. Big disruption can happen fast, or it can take years and we are prepared for it to take years, although every once in a while, especially in times of frustration I still need to be reminded that stuff doesn’t just magically happen.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I was very, lucky to grow up surrounded by family and extended family who truly loved and believed in me. My parents and my husband have played a huge role in getting me to where I am by constantly pushing me out of my comfort zone because they believe in me. As an adult, I have been lucky enough to meet many people who have been inspiring and have helped me along the way. One of the most important of these is my co-author Dominic Cappello. When we met we were working in child welfare, and although we had nothing in common at the surface level, we immediately had a deep connection because we were both big picture thinkers who knew our systems could do better. We also discovered that we had similar writing styles. Dominic had been a best-selling author, so when the idea occurred to me that we should write a book, he knew exactly what to do. Writing with an experienced partner was a game changer for me. Dominic knew how to keep us on schedule, he knew how to edit our writing, and most importantly he knew that we needed to do a lot more than just write the book, but that the real work was promoting it. My writing has vastly improved as a result of working with Dominic, and he continues to guide me through the process of publishing, designing, and marketing. It’s fascinating that a chance meeting at a work potluck has led to the publication of three books, and an institute, but it goes to show what a huge impact a person can have on your life, if you are open to learning from them.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
The system we set out to disrupt was the child welfare system. This was a system that was broken. Kids weren’t always safe, staff were burning out, and no one was looking for innovative solutions to prevent the need for foster care. In New Mexico in the early 2000’s our child welfare system was one of the highest functioning, based on the metrics used to measure effectiveness- placement stability and recurrence of maltreatment. The reason it went from a high functioning system to a struggling system is because of disruption. In 2008 when the economic crisis happened a hiring freeze was implemented, and a new Governor was elected who ran on the platform of ending government waste and holding employees accountable. For those of us working in the system this translated to increased workload, fewer benefits, and being treated with suspicion at every turn. It turned into a fear-based system and many of the long-term, most effective employees left for other states or private industry. This is an example of negative disruption.
It is much easier to disrupt a system in a negative way. Changing a system, and especially rebuilding after years of dysfunction is much harder. Coming up a with a vision and a plan was the easy part for us. Now that we are trying to implement our plans we realize that there are many challenges that we never expected. We also know that the work is worth doing, so even though it is hard and it might take a long time, in order to disrupt systems in a way that withstands the test of time, we have to stick with it for a long, long time.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
When I was in graduate school, I wrote a letter to one of my favorite authors, Chuck Palahniuk. I asked him how he came up with such imaginative out there stories, and he actually answered me (and sent me a beanie baby of my spirit animal and a beaded necklace he made). He said you have to turn off other people’s stories. Basically, unplug so you can hear your own voice. This was before we were all addicted to our smartphones, but he was oddly prescient. Now more than ever it is so important to unplug and get away from the constant streaming of information and misinformation. This advice always comes in particularly handy when I feel stuck on something. The best thing you can do sometimes is walk away, and then the answers start coming.
The other advice that has come in very handy in the last few years came from my mother in law. She said Give your love back where you get it. Publishing a book and pushing new ideas brings with it a lot of feedback, both good and bad. Her advice means to focus on the good, and that is a strategy that has really worked for us. Early on we had people who just fell in love with the book, Anna, Age Eight, and we invested a lot of energy and time in working with those people, and that led us to where we are now with an institute at a university. There were also many people who didn’t like what we were doing, but we have found it is a much better use of our time not to focus much of our energy on those people
This last piece of advice is something I just heard today, but I have been living by different forms of this advice for my entire adult life. I happened to have the opportunity to watch Tom Roberts, the poet who wrote the Great Realisation, do a zoom call with students. One of the students asked how to get started as a poet. He said “If you do nothing, definitely nothing will happen”. This really resonated with me, and it is something I know well, but do need to be reminded of from time to time (see my previous answer about a funny mistake). Writing as an art form is so personal and it is so easy to just write something and never share it. But if you don’t try, nothing will ever happen. I don’t remember what encouraged me to start sending op-eds to newspapers in my early 20’s but I had my own realization back then that if I didn’t share my writing, no one would ever read it. Obvious, I know but I think we get stuck sometimes in the idea that somehow something magical will happen and we’ll get discovered. It doesn’t work like that, you really have to put yourself out there.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Our latest book, Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras came out about a month ago, and we are hoping that it will get people thinking differently about why systems don’t change. We explain how our mounting daily challenges are not uncontrollable acts of nature, they are manmade. We describe the culprits as the “Three-Headed Hydras of Apathy, Envy and Fear.” These hydras are actual people in positions of real power, controlling and destroying our society.
Our hope is that this book will appeal to a wider audience than our previous books, but it still has the same message of emphasizing that real change is possible, and that any person can play a role in making it happen.
I also started a blog in recent weeks (https://katherineortegacourtney.medium.com/). This is some of the most personal writing I’ve shared publicly, and it seems to be really resonating with parents. I think all parents are struggling right now, and we need to stop pretending that everything is going fine. This blog is an opportunity for me to describe how so many of the policies and systems we talk about in our other books directly impact the lives of parents.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think women in general are held to a higher standard than men. We need to have all aspects of our lives in order including our homes, our appearances, our kids, and our careers. For men, it most cases they tend to only be judged based on their job performance. My writing partner and co-director is a male and it’s interesting to see what happens when we walk into a room together where people don’t know us. They assume he is in charge, and people who don’t know us tend to look to him for answers. Particularly older people. The expectations are different- I feel like as a woman, particularly as a minority woman I have to prove myself in every single room I walk into, because the default expectation for me is pretty low. Whereas for my co-author, there is a certain assumption that he belongs in the room. It is changing slowly and I am very optimistic that someday we will all be held to the same standard, but it takes a concerted effort from everyone to make it happen.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
I read Buddha and the Badass during quarantine and it had a profound impact on me. It reinforced everything I was doing and let me know I was on the right path. It is hard in these times where we are so isolated in our own little bubbles. At times I really question whether what we are doing is making any kind of impact. But the message in the book about finding your purpose, and having an intention to your work was exactly what I needed. It also introduced me to MindValley which has really made a huge difference in my life during the wild ride that 2020 has been. It has really kept me grounded and help me keep focus on what is important.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I like to think that we are seeing the beginnings of a movement start here in New Mexico. When we first published Anna, Age Eight it was very rare to hear anything about the impacts and prevalence of childhood trauma, and now it is just part of many conversations, particularly in education. This is a huge start, but not enough. In the seven counties we work with in New Mexico, we are seeing a greater understanding of the need for access to services, the breaking down of silos, and more cohesive communities. For this movement to bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, I would like to see even more community members joining the local coalitions. The more people that understand that so many people start out with an uneven playing field the better. Once people understand that there is a real opportunity gap in which access to services, like fully resourced community schools, can have a huge impact on people’s lives, I think we can start to see real change happen.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes that I came across during a particularly traumatic and difficult time in my life is “sometimes you just do things”. This quote repeatedly appears in the book Eat and Run by Scott Jurek. It really helped me get through one of the hardest times in my life. When things get rough, it is easy to ask why, or become frozen in inaction. I found that this quote would pop into my head when I had something particularly difficult to do. It is a great reminder to keep putting one foot in front of the other, both when you are running and in life in general. Sometimes you just have to do something, even if it’s unpleasant, even if you don’t want to.
How can our readers follow you online?
We are online at www.tenvitalservices.org and on facebook, twitter, and instagram @fighthydras
My Blog is on Medium here: https://katherineortegacourtney.medium.com/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!