Articles, interviews and resources
The University Health Department of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion is proud to present a series of talks by and about women in leadership.
Tiffany Ruffin, PsyD, a national registered licensed health psychologist, graduated from Forest Institute of Professional Psychology with a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology.
Currently she works as a behavioral health consultant at University Health in women's health services, where she is able to continue sharing this model for change. Dr. Ruffin is passionate about sharing information, connecting with people, and helping guide people to understand themselves through a strengths-based, empowerment-focused lens.
The Equity, Diversity and Inclusion department's Women in Leadership series is one of several ways that University Health is celebrating Women’s History Month. This series is a collection of discussions featuring powerful leading women who share their stories of ascension and strength to empower and celebrate women. The Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Department at University Health sat down with Hayat Abdullahi, Senior Director of Community Health Strategies and Innovation, to discuss her robust and international story.
Hayat came to the United States in her late teenage years as an accomplished student with a determined mindset. Hayat graduated from Cairo University as a double major in Sociology and Psychology; she has received several leadership certifications including one from the University of Geneva for International Organizations Management. She has served communities across the globe as a Community Mobilizer for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), a Diplomatic Liaison, and as an active member of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) such as Action Against Hunger.
Hayat is never shy in her advocacy or service to the community and her humility when discussing her accomplishments is palpable. She has leveraged her knowledge and experience to work on reducing health disparities in the Kansas City community. Hayat personifies what University Health means when we say we have the “Brightest Minds and the Biggest Hearts”. The thoughts she shared contain powerful insights about her global service, her immigration experience, and being a woman in leadership.
Your story is such a strong message for women’s and community empowerment. How did your story start and how did we get the Hayat that we see today?
It was instilled in me from a very young age and how I grew up that we are here to serve. Justice is our biggest goal; justice for all. When I got my education from Cairo University, I wanted to make sure that I had an international component. I had a lot of involvement with United Nations partnerships and NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) on women’s health issues. One of the biggest issues, the way I kind of pivoted into healthcare, was female circumcision. I would go with NGO’s to rural areas and educate women on birth control and safe sexual practices. Healthcare was not attractive to me but I kept my mind open.
I was almost in my twenties when I got my first job in the United States. I was a barista at a coffee and ice cream shop. The United States is one of the best countries and I believe that because it is still, on its worst day, it is trying to figure out how to become the best. When I got to the United States, I did not think healthcare disparity was an issue. But, in my second job at Samuel Rodgers as an interpreter, I advocated for refugees and started a program for refugees to get physical examinations as a way of getting refugees into a healthcare system and getting their care in one place. It was then that I started to see how unfair the system was, and not just for refugees, for everyone. I started looking at healthcare disparities across the United States. I started seeing some of the same global healthcare issues here in the United States and it opened my eyes to the issues that are here. I started thinking about how I can assist with this; let’s start with refugees and then move from there.
Then I got to Healthy Start. We reached out to help women and I saw that African-American and Hispanic women were getting the least of the resources and most of them were from here. They were citizens; it wasn’t a legal status issue that created barriers. So, I leveraged my global experience and my global knowledge on how to approach these issues. Education was the biggest thing; creating something that was going to benefit these people, empower them, and help them advocate for themselves.
You mentioned a program called Healthy Start. From what I understand, that program was your beginning at University Health.
Yes, I started working at University Health in 2006 as a Community Health Specialist for a program called Healthy Start. Healthy Start was a grant-funded program that was under social work services. We were working with women with postpartum health issues. A friend told me about the job because this program was trying to reach out to women who spoke Somali and Arabic and I’m fluent in both of those languages. So, I gave it a try and I’ve been here since then.
How did your department, Community Health Strategies and Innovation, develop?
There was a change in funding for programs for women’s care and women’s health so the Healthy Start program was pulled from hospitals and put in FQHC’s (Federally Qualified Health Centers). When that happened, I think it was 2013 or 2014, we were asked to stay and close out the program. We worked closely with University Health’s Community Outreach team, and since they knew our work with the community, I was asked if I was interested in a Community Health Education Manager position.
When I got that position, I started looking at the whole picture of community health. I asked myself what community health meant for Truman. I wanted University Health to become the mecca of health and wellness in Kansas City. At the time, University Health was involved in a lot of community events and health fairs and I felt like we could improve upon that. I proposed to my leadership that we shift from being event based to programmatic; where we develop partnerships with the community and target populations through different programs tailor-made for them.
Programs would give the community a sustainable stream of information and education. And, programs would connect them to the healthcare system and would give University Health the ability to become the go-to entity for health and wellness. That’s when we created the wellness connection programs which are programs where we partner with entities who give us rooms to put blood pressure machines, scales, exercise equipment, and space for our staff to educate people and empower the community to take charge of their own health. When that proved to be successful we were asked how we could grow this and that’s when I put a proposal together to become Community Health Strategies and Innovation. Now we are a programmatic department creating robust results in our community.
Why is it important for you to share your story in this way?
I tend to be extremely shy and always in the background, even though my job is out in the community. But two things happened in the last year and half, one was the pandemic, and number two is social justice issues; diversity issues, minority issues. It feels like, okay, now is the time to be vocal about our experiences because I’m not alone, you know. There are so many people going through challenges and issues. And if I have any type of platform or outlet, I can not only speak for myself, but I can speak for everybody that has my experience or background. I find myself saying it’s not just about talking about yourself and being shy about it. It’s about talking about experiences that could be so many other peoples’ experiences as well. And if I can shed a light on what my experience meant or how I went through challenges then maybe, somebody will relate to it, or maybe it will be a lightbulb for someone to say, “Oh, okay, I didn’t know that was going on with this group.”
What was your leadership advancement experience like with respect to you being a woman who immigrated to the United States?
I had to work extremely hard just like any person of color. I felt like I had to work harder because I had to show that my accent does not reflect a lack of knowledge. I had to show people that my “weird” name is not as scary as you think. My international education is an asset. My experience, my global experience, can bring a different perspective to you.
We are taught to respect the culture you are visiting. But when you live in a different country there is an additional layer of challenges. How you talk, your facial expressions, and hand gestures, are all different than everyone else. You might even say the right thing but the message might get lost while people are too busy looking at your facial expression. So you have to tone this down when you speak. You become a fraction of yourself. Everything you’ve known about yourself you have to really hide.
These are actual issues. We have to deal with these things. Unless you're a doctor or an engineer with a “different” name, everyone thinks, “Who’s that person? What do they actually know?” I’ll tell you, when something bad happens in the news we will listen for the name. And we hope it’s not ours. It’s almost like we believe it is a reflection of all of us. If you are Arab, Muslim, Black, Hispanic, it’s like you have to be perfect or you’re going to make us all look bad.
And I’m still in that mindset. I have to do very well so that anybody like me would not feel bad and so that anybody like me can have the same or a better opportunity.
How could I be an advocate or ally to women and people who have immigrated to the United States?
I would say I believe the best thing you can do is to give them the same opportunity as everyone else. Maybe they’re shy. Maybe they can’t express themselves exactly the same way we know other people express themselves. Listen to them a little closer. We are in the background and we want to be heard. So many of us are swimming and feel lost and like we have to do more to be noticed. So it becomes competition instead of feeling like the same door is open for me just like everybody else. Respect them, listen to them, and ask them questions. They are the experts.
Take us under your wings. We can really and truly bring so much into this society. We can become an asset to different companies. Don’t try to tap into our “Americanized” way but truly what unique perspectives we can bring. I will never take for granted the people like Niki (Niki Donawa, University Health Chief Community Relations Officer) who sponsored me and gave me opportunities to grow. If you can make somebody feel okay about who they are, do so. Give us that time, open doors for us, and give us opportunities.
What leadership and career development lessons would you like to share?
You know if I were talking to my younger self I would say don’t get too stuck in the small things like how you talk and communicate. All of that is minimal compared to proving what you can do for an organization. Know that you are part of this society. It’s not your problem to make people like you. Just be the best you can be, and keep going. Keep focused on what you’re trying to accomplish. Have a goal. Ask questions. Get advice. Get mentors. You have to have sponsors. You have to have people opening the doors for you. You have to have people who will see through all of these stereotypes and say there is something you can offer this organization. Those are the people that are truly going to show you how to navigate this complex society. This complex system. You don’t know everything. And that’s where your mentors are going to help. Being a part of the progress is what’s important. Don’t be stuck in your own head. We bring so much to this society. Know that. Act on that.
The University Health Department of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in conjunction with the Diversity Council, is proud to present a series of talks by and about women in the workplace. The first will feature Traci Johnson, MD.
A product of Central Texas, Dr. Johnson’s career was born out of a loving family’s nurturing and encouragement as a young child. Standing on the shoulders of her family, her journey brought her to KC where she has practiced for the last 10 years.
As an academic physician, Dr. Johnson takes pride in shaping the minds and skills of the next generation of bright physicians in Women’s Health. She has the honor of being selected to sit on the state Pregnancy-Associated Mortality Review Board that honors the women who die from childbirth-related causes by reviewing each fatality in detail in an attempt to prevent maternal morbidity and mortality in our state. She also works on a state-wide collaborative aimed to close gaps in care for women and infants in Missouri.
Dr. Johnson’s passion truly is to provide phenomenal and well-informed care to women of all ages. She believes she developed a love of adolescent health while teaching high school students weekly in Philadelphia during medical school. That passion for education in medicine grew deeper when she served as Chief Administrative Resident during residency at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Johnson is a participant in the UMKC School of Medicine Maternal Fetal Medicine Fellowship program, and does not see patients at this time.