Making Health Happy with Kiana Trabue

Making Health Happy with Kiana Trabue

On a sunny spring afternoon, Women of Cincy caught up with Kiana Trabue, self-proclaimed passionate and intelligent visionary, in Washington Park. We walked down the block, and the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati Executive Director of Community Health gave us a tour of the newly renovated Central Parkway YMCA branch before we settled into the building’s chapel to discuss health, diversity, faith, and making a difference in the community.

Interview by Kelsey Johnson. Photography by Stacy Wegley.

To start, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a Cincinnati native. I grew up about 14 miles northwest of the city in Woodlawn. I still live in the neighborhood where I grew up. I love it there – lots of memories. I moved back there because I want my children to grow up similar to the way I did – with the nice sense of family and community, and easy access to different types of activities. I have a boy and a girl. My daughter is nine; her name is Jayla. My son is three and his name is Jaxon. My parents have been married for 47 years and I have an older sister, who is my hero. She recently beat breast cancer. Some of the work that I do, she really inspired me to keep moving around some of the cancer survivor programs that we have here at the Y.

What do you do at the YMCA?

I work for the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati as the Executive Director of Community Health. I oversee and set the strategic direction around health, including chronic disease prevention for 14 branches here in Cincinnati, in Highland County, and also in Northern Kentucky.

The Y really started its work focusing on chronic disease prevention and management with our Diabetes Prevention Program. That’s our signature program that we’ve been running here for about seven years. I started off overseeing that program and helping it grow by identifying the health disparities around diabetes incidents and mortality, and identifying those individuals who are at the highest risk. So through that, we’ve been able to focus in on the African-American and Hispanic community, and those that are at or below 200 percent of the poverty level. We’re really trying to engage those individuals by helping them know their risk for Type 2 diabetes and that it doesn’t mean they will get diabetes, that there are things we can do to try to help them along that journey.

How did you become interested in healthcare?

I started my public health career, actually, at the Cincinnati Health Department. I had just graduated from undergrad at Ohio State, and prior to that, I had gone to school to be a dental assistant. I came back and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had the opportunity to work for the health department. When I got there, I was lucky enough to have a supervisor that really saw a lot of potential in me and really wanted to challenge me and push me out of my comfort zone. She came to me one day and said, “Based on our conversations and what I know about you, you need to go back to graduate school because you could be doing so much more. I think I have the perfect program for you.” She introduced me to the Masters of Public Health program at Wright State University. I remember it was on a Monday; I went and found out information about the program, and then the following Wednesday, I was taking classes.

What part of your work at the Y are you the most passionate about?

Helping people realize that no matter where there are in their health journey, it doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Whether you’re someone who’s coming into our doors because you consider yourself to be a fairly healthy person or you’re an individual at risk for certain chronic diseases, the Y can play a role in your journey. Seeing the look on their faces when they realize that they can actually take control and make changes in their life, not only to reduce their risk for diabetes, but really to improve their overall health, is very rewarding.

I’m especially passionate about our cancer survivor program. For the couple of years I had been here, we had people asking us, “How come you all don’t have Livestrong?” So when I went to ask our leadership about that, part of the reason was that we didn’t have funding to be able to support the program. Our national organization was giving out very small grants to help support the program – about $3500. So we hadn’t taken the step to apply for it. I let that go for a little while, but something kept pulling at me saying, “You need to apply for the grant…you need to apply for this grant…” so I sat down with our foundation and grant specialist and said, “We’re gonna write for this.”

We wrote for it, and shortly before we found out we had gotten the grant, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. So I just feel like that was God working. Being able to touch the lives of not only the community, but also our staff and our instructors, has been really, really rewarding. It’s been kind of a life-changer for some of us in our branches – that’s truly our mission at work.

What has your experience as one of the first women of color holding an administrative position in your organization been like?

I think I’ve become more aware. Sometimes in my circle of friends, we’ll say we’re “the only.” So whether it’s you’re the only woman, or you’re the only African-American, or you’re the only African-American woman in the room, it happens quite often.

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I feel like our association’s leadership definitely understands that there needs to be more diversity, specifically racial diversity, in leadership positions. I believe they’ve been extremely supportive of that, but I also, honestly, will say that there are some times when I’m in the room and I definitely feel like the only. Like I definitely wish there was someone else that I could just share a glance with or nod my head, kind of that nonverbal communication, and they understand where I’m coming from.

There aren’t a lot of us on the third floor where I work. I just was noticing today when the team was having lunch. I looked around and thought, “Hmm, I’m the only black person in here!” [Laughs.] It’s not something that I try to think about, but I mean, it’s a reality. It’s definitely a reality.

One of the things that I’m really proud of specific to that is when a small team of us submitted an application to our national organization to host a Regional Emerging Multicultural Leadership Experience. So what that is, is an experience. We don’t want to call it a conference or workshop because it really is an experience. It’s focused on part-time staff of color and helping them to realize their potential by seeing individuals who are in my position, or at the program director-level position. Showing them that they do have an opportunity to move up in the Y and eventually even become a CEO, if that’s what their dream is. We’re trying to provide them with examples of individuals that look like them, that may have even started in a position like they did. And, trying to provide them with the tools and resources necessary so that if that’s what they want to do, we can help them along the way.

How are you all advancing dialogue at work around today’s difficult social issues, such as diversity?

We are part of the Diversity, Inclusion, and Global Innovation Network, which is a network of YMCA associations across the country that have decided that diversity and inclusion is important. [Branches in the network] want to take some really solid and concrete steps in making sure that from the way that we interview and hire and recruit staff, to the way that we present ourselves in the community, that we are truly open for all, around all of the dimensions of diversity.

One of the old sayings goes: “What gets measured gets done.” So not just talking about “Hey, we’re gonna do this,” or “We’re gonna have our membership applications translated into Spanish.” Well, that’s not enough. Those are all surface things. Our board and our new CEO are really challenging us to dig a little bit deeper. How do we really create a culture of inclusion? Not only for the staff, but for the community as well. So I’m really excited about seeing where that goes.

One thing that we did that may seem small, but was very big was last year when the YMCA participated in Cincinnati Pride activities, which is the first time that we’ve ever done that. That opened up doors for some dialogue around the Christian emphasis and how that plays with Pride activities, so we were able to have some really great discussions around that and why we feel as an organization we need to be there. No matter what your thoughts are around any of those things, our mission calls for us to be for all – we can’t say we’re for all except for these people, or except for those people. That was really huge. The community was really excited to see us there. And we will be at Pride again this year.

We’re trying to really be out in the community, something that we call “Go Be the Y.” The Y doesn’t have to be you coming into our building, joining our association, and using our treadmills, but what kind of things can we go into the community and do?

Outside of your work at the Y, tell us about your community involvement.

I’m very involved with my church. I come from a small family church where my great uncle is the pastor and his father was before him. I do a lot of work there, help out a lot with health fairs and some of the health ministries that happen at the church.

I think that there are plenty of issues that we can talk about and plenty of complaints that we could have about the way things are, or the state of our community, our state, our country. But I believe that action is the only way to make things happen. So we can talk about it, we can tweet about it, we can Facebook about it. But if we’re not actually out there doing the work, then it really doesn’t matter. So I’m also a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated. I do a lot of volunteer work with that organization, and then I also work with an organization called Totally You. [I work] specifically on a girls luncheon. We’re looking for girls ages 7 to 15 and really trying to encourage them that they are beautiful inside and out. We try to help them build their self-esteem and confidence, really showing them examples of strong black women who are out here making moves and doing things, and just really encouraging them to stay the course.

How has your faith influenced your personal and professional journey?

I feel like my faith is front and center. I think that has changed and evolved over the years. From the time I can remember, I grew up in church. There were times we were in church three or four times a week, we were there every Sunday, we went to Bible study, we sang in the choir, we were in all the youth groups, and all of these different things. As I’ve gotten older, I think that I’ve realized that faith and a relationship with God is more important than the building and actually going to a place to worship. You can really worship anywhere.

That’s one of things that I love about the YMCA, as well. When I was interviewing for this position, my question was: “How big is the C in the YMCA? How does that play out every day?” I was really happy to find that we have devotions at the beginning of every meeting; there’s always a prayer; we share “mission moments” to kind of bring us back to why we do what we do. I feel like this environment has been really supportive. I love this chapel. When I need time to come and be alone, to think, or to pray, I come down here very often.

Who have been some influential women in your life?

There’s so many! I’ll go with the celebrity first. I would have to say Michelle Obama. I think that over the past eight years, she has shown a lot of dignity and class in the way that she has carried herself as first lady and as a mother to her children. I think that shows in what her children have become over the past eight years. I love her work with the Let’s Move initiative, really taking an interest in what we’re doing with our children in school and helping the younger generation. If we can get our kids healthy, then that will just trickle down and they’ll teach those habits to their children and then their children.

And then my real-world example would definitely have to be my sister. She went from being a healthy, 37-year-old mother of four and working every day to finding a lump in her breast, having stage 3 breast cancer and going through chemo, radiation, a double mastectomy, and reconstruction surgery. And to be able to do that and not break down, and still be a mom, and still be a sister, and still be a daughter, has been extremely inspiring to me. I feel like if she can do that and never complain, I can do anything.

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