Knitasha Washington is President of Washington Howard Associates, a Chicago healthcare administration consultancy that works to manage various healthcare-related projects including but not limited to design and implementation of public health campaigns and health service delivery strategic planning. She has worked for many years as a healthcare disparities and diversity advocate who has championed policies that aid the medically underserved. She is president of the National Association of Health Services Executives’ Chicago Midwest Chapter and a fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives. She has worked in the past with MedAssets and University Healthsystem Consortium. She serves on a variety of boards, including St. James Health System Missions HR Committee, MedStar Health System Patient Advisory Council, Robert Lurie Cancer Center Office of Minority Health Advisory Council within the Northwestern Medicine System and Fertile Ground Foundation. She holds B.A. from Chicago State University and M.A. degrees from Governors State University and has completed the Doctor of Health Administration Degree from Central Michigan University. She is the mother of two.

You consult with healthcare companies about being more open and responsive to underserved communities. Did you pursue a healthcare career from the start?

No. I landed in healthcare by default. I was a teenage mom so I went down a nontraditional career track. There came a time I just needed a job that was going to pay enough to take care of me and my daughter and still give me time to pursue my academic goals.

During the 1990s and there was a lot of attention paid to HMOs and getting our arms around healthcare costs. The first job I had was with Humana. Ultimately that job became a career and a passion that developed from seeing the impact of the work I do. That passion now has become ministry for me.

Was it difficult to handle parenthood and career building as a teen?

I don’t know that being a parent has gotten any easier. You learn how to adjust and make things happen. If I were to look back the most challenging part, it was having the desire to succeed on the inside but not having the career guidance outside. I had the support of a great family upbringing and structure. But, it was having a passion for something you couldn’t quite put a name to.  I had limited guidance when it came to direction and mentoring in my field; I really didn’t have a strong framework to show me, “This is how it gets done.” That was a struggle.

I think all young people struggle with finding their passion. Now I’m more directed but I still need support and guidance. But I have less fear of going with my heart. I feel my life is testiment to what you can do if you persevere and push on through your fears and circumstances.

How long did it take for you to feel you were the master of your fears?

I was always a rebel to some degree, going against the grain. I remember being pregnant in high school and coming back my junior year. One of my teachers pulled me aside in the hallway. She said, “I heard you were pregnant.” I didn’t really respond but she said, “No real leader allows herself to get in a situation like that, so for that reason we’re taking you off the school leadership team. You haven’t demonstrated leadership.” In other words I learned how to push past the fear.  So as editor of the school newspaper I remember writing an editorial on true leadership. That was my way of not submitting to the fear I was feeling.

Did that sting from being chastised stay with you for a long time?

It did. It truly did. Now when I look back, that was just one small grain of sand in the pile of adversity I had to deal with. I remember teachers going back and forth over whether I was honors class material. I knew I was. But I learned that you always have to be an advocate for yourself. I had to learn that early on.

I always had this push to persevere. I heard that I was going to be on welfare and amount to nothing because of the pregnancy. I had to take that in and hold on closely to my dream.

That game doesn’t change even now. You have to be cautious about those people who you allow in your circle. There are always going to be people who doubt you. “She’s not ready.”  “She’s too young.” “We need her to look like this or that.” Those voices are always going to be there, but you learn how to create the right energy around you so that you advance forward.

Did you also have voices telling you that you could succeed?

Absolutely. My strongest advocates were my parents. Despite their disappointment in some of the decisions I made, they never stopped supporting me. Even if it was just an encouraging word or a story about what they went through when they were younger, I had them at my side. That was so important.

As a parent now I think about the lack of values in so many young people today. I think we have to get back to where those values comes from– family and community. When learning comes from family and is reinforced by the community it is so much stronger.

Did you encounter many other women or African-Americans who could help you?

Honestly, I didn’t. I didn’t run into many women and not many successful African-Americans, male or female, who were willing to take me aside and coach me. But I was exposed to people who did help push me through. Those people came from myriad backgrounds.

My energy found leaders and leaders found me. Despite color, age or gender they saw aptitude, consciousness, value and they helped me. That first job at Humana was given to me by an African-American man. He was comparatively young, maybe in his early 30s, but he had worked up to management. He gave me an opportunity to come into a large corporate organization at a young age because he believed in me, and vice versa, I believed in myself.

The majority of the people who helped me along the way were Caucasian, and a majority of those were males. There weren’t many women or African-Americans who had the ability to give me what I needed and help me move up early on.

Over the most recent 10 years I have developed relationship with a couple African American mentors (one male and one female) who are more like parental figures and friends who coach me along the way.  I could thrive within a corporate environment but had limited relations with my own community.  So I am truly grateful they came into my life because I needed more guidance from within my own community.

Do you try to function as a counselor for young women?

I take my role as a mentor seriously. Just being a colleague to other women is of value. I say that I see my role today more as ministry because it’s about how I can give back to other people.

Do you see your role in healthcare as being an advocate for others, especially the less fortunate?

Yes. That’s the deal. My father was an advocate for the community. Coming up through the civil rights movement, he had to advocate for himself to earn his place and keep his job. You learn that by seeing that. I learned that in the kitchen and at the dinner table. So when it came time for me to advocate for myself, it came naturally.

As I grew older I could see through his eyes the disparities that do exist, between haves and have nots, and between those who have a voice and those who don’t. Many without a voice live in fear of speaking their opinions. As I began to evolve in my career I saw those disparities, too. That propelled me to the next level, where I wasn’t just advocating for myself but for the community.

My role today is to work for others in the hope of seeing their lives improve.

What keeps you going?

Knowing that there is change happening. A solid foundation of values keeps me going. Even if I don’t see all the changes I work for in my lifetime, I know they will happen because of the work I’ve done. I’m willing to go through that process to push through. My children will see the change, if I don’t.

You can’t give others the strength you have, but what do you tell them?

The biggest piece is to get to a place where you can seek out an understanding of what dreams and aspirations they possess on the inside. I believe everybody has a dream, that we all have something in that emotional zone that is deep within us. It’s something we can’t always describe. But if you can get in touch with that, and know what that dream, that passion is within you, you will do things you never thought you could do.

How do you get in touch with it?

I tell people to tap into who they are. I ask them, “Who are you?” Ask yourself. Know your strengths and weaknesses. It’s a matter of cracking that code and knowing who you are. When you get aligned with that, it will give you all the energy you need to persevere.

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