The vision of the Whole Person Care – Los Angeles (WPC-LA) team is to ensure that the most marginalized Medi-Cal (Medicaid) beneficiaries in LA County have the resources and support they need to thrive. Justice-involved, high-risk individuals are one of the target populations served by WPC-LA. The LA team understands that obtaining meaningful community feedback is essential for developing effective programs for people affected by mass incarceration.
Two key staff within the Department of Health Services (DHS) have been a driving force in establishing the Reentry Health Advisory Collaborative (RHAC) — an 11-member advisory board created to provide LA County with input on the health care and social service needs of individuals who were formerly incarcerated. Over the last 18 months, the RHAC has participated in larger county discussions on justice system transformation, such as how to proceed with the closure of Men’s Central Jail and necessary improvements to LA’s crisis response system. Recruiting people with lived experience to work at LA DHS and lead the RHAC’s community engagement process has been a key contributor to the program’s success. These staff members approach this work from a place of deeper understanding and are able to build a stronger rapport with the RHAC.
The Center for Health Care Strategies (CHCS) recently spoke to Diamond Lee and Diana Zúñiga, both Associate Directors of Regional Collaboration for WPC-LA who led the RHAC initiative, about how their lived experience shapes their professional work, as well as their passion for meaningfully serving the justice-involved population.
Q: What inspired you to work with the justice-involved population?
A: D. Zúñiga: I have been personally impacted because my father and several family members have been incarcerated. Prior to joining LA DHS three years ago, I spent over a decade working on justice-involved issues by doing community work and advocating to state and local-level policymakers to shift spending away from incarceration and towards giving our communities the resources that they deserve and need.
D. Lee: I bring a strong equity focus, specifically a race equity lens, to all my work, which of course has a strong connection to criminal justice. Regardless of the project or my position title, I help our team think through “how do we build out our race equity framework here?”
Q: Why do you think it is important for local governments and health care systems to partner with people with lived experience?
More and more, local jurisdictions, counties, and states are shifting away from mass incarceration and focusing more on a health and healing approach. In order to do that in a manner that speaks to the needs of people who are most impacted by incarceration, their voices, their stories, and their experiences need to be at the center of the conversation.
A: D. Lee: The role of local government is to use their funding and power to benefit the public. It’s a grave disservice if the public isn’t informing how the funding should be used. Our communities are either not trusted to provide effective solutions or the solutions are underfunded. Instead, the government experiments on communities or creates their own ideas of what is best for our community. It’s time to shift that dynamic.
D. Zúñiga: More and more, local jurisdictions, counties, and states are shifting away from mass incarceration and focusing more on a health and healing approach. In order to do that in a manner that speaks to the needs of people who are most impacted by incarceration, their voices, their stories, and their experiences need to be at the center of the conversation. This is important to avoid replicating the systemic oppression and racism that our communities have felt for a long time.
Q: How has elevating people with lived experience to positions of leadership impacted the work of LA DHS?
It’s not just about hiring people like us into these positions, it’s about the whole continuum of what you do when you create this workforce. It’s about supporting us, mentoring us, protecting our leadership, and ensuring that we’re being compensated for our labor.
A: D. Zúñiga: Folks like Diamond and I were put in this particular leadership position to imagine different systems, rather than trying to reform our broken system, and without us, the RHAC wouldn’t have been possible. Since we were hired, we have been able to use human-centered language, create a consensus-building lived experience approach, and elevate voices most impacted when developing the Alternatives to Incarceration Roadmap. Additionally, it’s not just about hiring people like us into these positions, it’s about the whole continuum of what you do when you create this workforce. It’s about supporting us, mentoring us, protecting our leadership, and ensuring that we’re being compensated for our labor.
D. Lee: I can’t tell you how many conversations we’ve been in where ideas are generated on how programs should operate, but the metrics that are developed are not in line with the communities’ priorities. It’s not just a numbers game, these are people we are talking about, so we’re working to redefine folks’ understanding of what success means.
Q: In what ways has your lived experience played a role in building a culture of trust and understanding with RHAC members?
A: D. Zúñiga: Because I’ve had loved ones incarcerated, I’m able to connect to the RHAC members on a deeper level. Some of us have been working in this space for over a decade, so we’ve been able to build these relationships over time. We’ve also been present for each other in the trauma, pain, and frustration that comes with doing this work, as well as the successes and the celebrations. That’s not something you can easily quantify.
D. Lee: There are just a lot things actively happening in our community: COVID-19 disproportionately affecting communities of color, including those who are currently incarcerated, as well as ongoing police brutality leading to national civil unrest. Although we have all this on our minds, we’re still expected to come to work, attend these meetings, and participate in these workgroups that are often triggering and re-traumatizing. Diana and I view healing as part of our professional development, so we consistently check-in with each other and the RHAC to both affirm their feelings and experiences. This is foundational in building our relationship with the RHAC.
Q: How do you feel about what you’ve done so far in elevating community voices, and where do you imagine this work going?
Having the RHAC at the table is a great first step, but the prize that we’re seeking is real collaboration, integration, and power for folks who have been negatively impacted by mass incarceration.
A: D. Zúñiga: There have been so many motions pushed forward in the last year related to justice issues, and I feel so grateful that we had the foresight to create the RHAC. If we hadn’t, there would literally be no community engagement or discussions around reducing the jail populations or responding to the closing of Men’s Central Jail. We have been able to promote a community engagement model that ensures that the leadership of formerly incarcerated people is consistently lifted up.
D. Lee: Elevating and engaging these voices is not the same as valuing and transforming. Having the RHAC at the table is a great first step, but the prize that we’re seeking is real collaboration, integration, and power for folks who have been negatively impacted by mass incarceration.