Member Spotlight: David Martinez III of Vitalyst Health Foundation

Young people of Arizona are central to Vitalyst Health Foundation‘s work.

David Maritnez III is Vitalyst Health Foundation’s new Director of Capacity Building and Community Engagement. Before joining the foundation, he worked with a community-based think tank, the Center for the Future of Arizona, and at the Food Bank Alliance in Phoenix, where he worked closely with Vitalyst on building healthy communities by tackling hunger through advocacy. A former middle school social studies teacher, civic engagement is a driving theme in David’s work. Recently, he sat down with PACE to share more about his vision for this new role at Vitalyst, his passion for his home state . . . and why everyone should read Michelle Obama’s new book.

1. What is inspiring you right now? When you get up in the morning, what are you excited about?

It’s less about what gets me up in the morning and more about what gets me up in the middle of the night — I’m just so excited and so full of ideas about what this role can be. We’ve added even greater focus on capacity building for community-based leaders, organizations, and coalitions. This has been a driving force of Vitalyst’s work for some time, but that focus has been rejuvenated as I assume this role, and I’ve been provided a lot of freedom to develop our capacity building portfolio.

Vitalyst works on a grant process as well as a consulting process; the nonprofits and coalitions we partner with have specific needs that don’t always take the shape of grants — sometimes they need a strategic plan, or to build a skillset in marketing or development. So Vitalyst contracts with consultants here in Arizona that best match with their needs, and I’ve been doing a listening tour with the consultants and coaches we’ve worked with in the past year, as well as the nonprofits they’ve been working with, to see how their needs are being met and find ways to expand as we continue building the health of Arizonans and their communities.

2. Can you tell me a little bit more about your connection to Arizona?

I’m the nerdiest guy you’ll ever meet when it comes to Arizona history. I was born and raised in Arizona, and I’m committed to staying here and being an evangelist and educating people about this state. My vision is to really empower Arizonans who have incredible ideas and are doing amazing things; the kind of diversity and drive that make Arizona such an incredible place.

Arizonans have shown throughout our history that we can come together across great challenges and differences for the common good. Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the country — and it’s surrounded by the Sonoran desert. Andrew Ross, in his 2011 book “Bird on Fire” said Phoenix shouldn’t exist, simply because of the lack of resources surrounding it. But it does exist — and it thrives today because of the forward-thinking Arizonans who built a truly innovative infrastructure to tap into existing natural resources, and preserve and utilize open space. It’s a truly stalwart city.

3. How does your work at Vitalyst incorporate the unique-ness of your state?

I lead the capacity building, community engagement, and civic participation portfolio at Vitalyst. And a driving force of my work is to make sure it represents the demography and geography of Arizona. With regard to geography: we’re a very urbanized state, but rural Arizona is a beautiful place with great people doing incredible things — I was born and raised in rural, southern Arizona. Place and space is very important to me. With regard to demography: the youth of our state are now majority minority. And one quarter of our young people live in poverty. It’s an abysmal rate that we as a state need to focus on. If they’re living in poverty, our health outcomes are impacted, our education outcomes are impacted, and we know that both of those impact people’s ability to be contributing members of communities. There are so many implications on the future of Arizona if we don’t address these challenges now. That’s why health equity is at the center of everything we do.

I also want to focus my work on cultivating the next generation of nonprofit leaders and consultants. Data shows that many nonprofit leaders are aging out — and they’re great people, but they also may not be representative of the communities they’re serving. I want to explore how we can tap into the civic leadership of young people of color to engage them in their communities and build their capacity to better serve nonprofits and the coalitions that are working to strengthen their communities.

4. What does civic engagement mean to you? And to Vitalyst Health Foundation?

The way I see civic participation is a person’s ability to come together with their community — however they define that — to solve the public’s greatest problems.

Vitalyst Health Foundation’s “Healthy Community” Wheel

And civic engagement is reflected in the history of Vitalyst Health Foundation — we were founded in the late 90s after the sale of a public hospital network to a private entity. The profits of that sale formed what was then called St. Luke’s Charitable Health Trust — a network that had at its core a team of community volunteers. And that history of service has remained — civic participation or community engagement for us means building a pipeline of civic leaders that represent the demography and geography of Arizona. For us, that means building a pipeline of volunteers for local nonprofits, building the capacity of young people of color to connect to their communities, serve on boards, etc., and really become strong public servants. Our young people are a part of our community; they are Arizonans, and we as a community are responsible for engaging them.

5. It sounds like you think about civic engagement — and service in particular — as not just an end unto itself, but also a tool for achieving equity. PACE has explored civic education as a pathway for equity as well — is that something you think about too?

Oh, absolutely. I started off as a teacher, actually — a middle school civics teacher. And I think education is a great equalizer — civic education in particular has a lot of potential in equity outcomes. And Arizona has had a lot of great role models that have practiced this and embraced it: Sandra Day O’Connor was from Arizona, and her legacy is iCivics. The first bill our governor, Doug Ducey, ever signed was a civics literacy bill that required every high school student to pass civic literacy test. He also worked with Department of Education to develop a civic literacy seal for departing high school students that meet certain thresholds of civic education, including community service and social embeddedness. Civic education is part of the legacy of our state.

6. What has surprised you in this work?

Truly, what’s surprised me the most is people’s ability and willingness to come together and solve community challenges. That sounds really rosy and Polyanna-ish, but in a world dominated by vitriolic politics and an unrelenting 24/7 news cycle, incivility in social media, etc., it’s easy to become dismayed and think you don’t have things in common with your neighbor. But at the end of the day, we see communities coming together to solve challenges across age, demographics, political affiliation, etc. every day. And that’s really important for a state like ours — we’ve had a lot of challenges in our history around race, inequity, as well as being a border state and the complexities that brings. And the work of Vitalyst has really tried to capture that spirit of collaboration across differences.

Our innovation grants are our largest grants — where coalitions of folks that represent the public and private sectors, governments, and nonprofits, come together to propose innovative ideas to tackle community challenges. There, we see the real life implications of a community’s ability to come together to solve challenges.

7. What are you reading right now/have you read recently that changed you?

I just finished Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and I recommend it to anyone, especially young professionals. It’s so powerful to realize how much you have in common with someone who became the First Lady of the United States.

8. What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

Someone once told me: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” And I take that to heart, because I would not be here if it wasn’t for my family, my community, and the elders and ancestors that paved the way for a young gay Latino, native Arizonan to be in this role.


David Martinez III currently serves as Director of Capacity Building and Community Engagement for Vitalyst Health Foundation. In this role, he works closely with community-based leaders, organizations, and coalitions to increase their capacity and effectiveness; focusing on engaging those who are disproportionately affected by poor health outcomes who are often not brought to the discussion as equal partners. Prior to joining Vitalyst, Martinez was project manager for the Center for the Future of Arizona, and community engagement manager for St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance. He is a Flinn-Brown Fellow with the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and a steering committee member for the Center for LGBTQ Philanthropy with the Arizona Community Foundation.
Originally from Marana, Arizona and one of six children, David is a first generation college student earning a Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education, Political Science and Journalism from The University of Arizona. In college, he served as Student Regent on the Arizona Board of Regents, worked at the UA Office of Institutional Equity as well as an intern with Congressman Raul Grijalva. Martinez currently lives in Central Phoenix and as a localist, loves to check out new restaurants and attractions and explore Arizona’s mountains, desert, and wine country.