Maya Oaks, one of our two Center Fellows, is putting her background in social work and public health to use working on our Connect Capital program, serving as a liaison to multi-sector partnerships seeking to improve community well-being. Prior to joining CCI in the summer of 2017, Maya worked at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and managing results-based leadership programs, and has also worked at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services managing Head Start at the Federal level. In her spare time, Maya loves to travel with her husband, Ben, and favorite destinations include Burma and Tanzania.
How would you describe your role at the Center in one or two sentences?
I am a Center Fellow at CCI, and in that role I'm primarily involved in our Connect Capital work, which entails serving as a liaison to multi-sector partnerships across several cities, all of which are seeking to improve community well-being. We just launched the first stage of the work this summer, and as we continue I'll be working with teams on the ground who are addressing a whole range of issues from housing to things like regional economic development.
What about the Center's work most excites you right now?
There's so many things! I chose this fellowship because of CCI's strategy. This idea of targeting highly upstream social determinants of health is one that a lot of public health professionals shy away from. It's seen as this nebulous and unattainable way of intervening, and when you add the need to understand finance, investment need, and capital, it becomes even scarier. But I think it's a strategy that can impact the greatest number of people, and that's what public health is all about. That's a big reason I'm excited about the fellowship.
Another great thing about this role is I have this incredible opportunity to interact with practitioners who are both inside my sector, which is public health, and in other sectors who are thinking about this work and its importance on a regular basis. I see tremendous power in place-based work, especially place-based work that is using multi-sector or cross-sector partnerships to address systemic issues, which is a what a lot of the work in Connect Capital is focused on.
How did your early career lead you to this work?
The college I went to, Stanford, was a bit of a bubble in terms of its interactions with outside communities. I remember working in East Palo Alto with high school students on SAT prep and realizing how starkly different the trajectories were between those students and the ones at the university I was attending. They were less than a mile from campus and just over the bridge from west Palo Alto where all the professors and millionaires were living, and the East Palo Alto community had some of the poorest indicators around health and other outcomes.
After that, my career was focused on interactions with different communities. I started off in political organizing, working with community members across upstate New York, and ultimately the entire northeast region, who had difficult and heart-breaking narratives. I realized that I, an individual with a lot of privilege, had a lot more to learn. I went to social work grad school, and I started to understand the importance of change at a systems level. Then I spent quite a while working in the federal government, mostly with community-based Head Start programs.
What were you working on before you joined the Center?
Most recently, I saw the need for measuring impact and thinking about evaluation, which the social sector is not historically known for. I did my public health degree at Hopkins in Baltimore and ended up working at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. At Casey, my favorite programs were those based in a specific location, where you had multiple stakeholders coming together to work on a common issue. I did some work in Phoenix with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, and with probation departments in Santa Clara and Santa Cruz. I saw great power in that place-based work, especially when people were working across sectors.
What are you most excited to learn during the fellowship?
Coming into this Fellowship, my knowledge of finance and investment was pretty much non-existent. I'm beginning to understand those areas and the role they play, particularly in addressing the social determinants of health.
What's exciting and unique about CCI is the framework of capital absorption. Applying that in the space of a multi-sector partnership is so unusual. Then you take that one step further and think about how the public health sector takes up this work. It's such an unusual way to approach this problem.
I've also really loved learning this emergent learning practice that CCI engages in. It's a very intentional way of learning and making our learning visible to each other, making learning a collective process.
When you're not at work, you are…
Planning, and ideally, taking trips - traveling all over! Continuing to explore Baltimore - I moved here three and a half years ago from New York, so I'm constantly trying out new restaurants in the city's food scene. Baltimore's food scene is pretty impressive. Also, taking advantage of all the programs to get tickets to the symphony and the theater. Reading, movies, all sorts of stuff.
What are some of the top places that you've traveled to?
I lived and volunteered in Tanzania right out of college, doing HIV/AIDS education and awareness-building in a tiny village of 300 people outside of Arusha. I lived with a host family, had no running water, no electricity, had a lot of illnesses, but I had an incredible experience. I got to travel a lot while I was there. I went white-water rafting on the Nile, took a bus through Kenya to get to Uganda. That whole experience is one of my favorite trips.
My parents grew up in Myanmar (Burma) and emigrated in their 20s. I'd been to Burma as a child, and a year and a half ago I went back with my parents and husband. We did a lot of traveling around the country, including volunteering at a school that's run by a monastery. My father's been working at a clinic, and so we tried to help the clinic with some of its systems. That was a really great trip too.
People would be surprised to know…
That I have a black belt in tae kwon do. When people meet me, that's not something they'd ever guess!
What are some of your favorite books?
I just read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. It's all about life in the Midwest, including race issues. I also just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, which I loved. Right now I'm reading Five Days in Memorial, which is about a hospital that was the center of a lot of journalistic attention during Katrina because there were numerous bodies discovered there. There was controversy over whether the doctors had intentionally administered end-of-life treatment so the patients didn't suffer - what do health systems do in emergency situations like that, how do they triage and make decisions? There's another book, The Warmth of Other Suns, that's all about migration of African-Americans to the North, that's really fascinating.
What's your media diet?
I have a long commute, so I've just discovered podcasts. I've been listening to Radio Lab, Reveal, BBC's In Our Time, Hidden Brain, and Vox The Weeds. In terms of magazines and articles: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Economist - as a way to see what people in Europe think of us. A lot of late-night comedy news - Seth Meyers, Colbert, and all that.