Zulayka Santiago Brings a Social Justice Background to the Oral Health Collaborative

ZulaykaThe North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative brings together partners across the state to address oral health gaps. Zulayka Santiago joined our team as director in August. Her vast nonprofit experience includes working in the public, private, philanthropic, nonprofit and cooperative sectors. To learn more, we asked her some questions about her life’s work and her interest in oral health:

What attracted you to the Oral Health Collaborative?
My career thus far has had some interesting twists and turns.  Yet themes that are consistent throughout are a commitment to social justice, equity and community building.  All you have to do is scratch the surface to understand that there are strong intersections between oral health and health equity.  The people most directly impacted by the disparities in oral health are the same folks that are experiencing very similar health disparities in other areas: working class or poor people of color, our elders, folks in rural areas and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It is simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring to know that dental caries remains the number one chronic disease of childhood, even though it is entirely preventable.  This is part of the work of the NCOHC is to highlight the ‘entirely preventable’ aspect of this astounding fact and to work together to implement solutions.

Where were you before accepting this position?
I had been an independent consultant for almost 3 years immediately before starting this position.  Prior to that I had taken a year to focus on being a full-time mother to my newborn daughter, and prior to that I had a brief, but significant role as a Program Officer in Health Disparities with the NC Health and Wellness Trust Fund.

How does your background in social justice and equity connect to the NCOHC?
There are many reasons why inequities in oral health exist including: lack of health literacy, limited English proficiency, cultural, societal and economic barriers.  Part of these inequities are also linked to the workforce issues facing healthcare as a whole.  Regardless of geography, socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, age or mental/physical ability, it is tremendously important to ensure that all North Carolinians have access to good dental care, provided by someone they trust, in a timely and compassionate manner.

I think part of my role will be to find a way to help create space for and elevate the voices of the folks most directly impacted by these issues.  I am all too familiar with ‘outsiders’ flocking into marginalized communities and dictating how and why things should be done.  It is important that the work we lay out for this collaborative be relevant, respectful and considerate of the folks who have to grapple with these issues at a community level.

What are your hopes for the position?
I am a strong believer in the power of the collective.  This type of transformative work requires us to work across difference of silos, sectors, political ideology, etc. towards goals that will benefit all of North Carolina.  There is great potential in this work.  Potential for dramatic change within our lifetime and that is very exciting to me. My hope is that we can build upon the wonderful work that has already been done and develop a comprehensive plan of action that will bring to life NCOHC’s mission of reducing oral health disparities and promoting improved oral health for all North Carolinians.

In your experience, what’s been the best strategy for successful collaboration in the non-profit world?
Building authentic and trusting relationships.  Relationships are the key to so many things, and definitely for successful collaborations.  Focusing first on the vision, mission and values that bring us together and then laying out a roadmap with some clear goals and outcomes that benefits our individual organizations and pushes the work of the collaborative forward.  There is already an incredibly powerful, dedicated, and well-connected group of folks that make up the collaborative.  Now it’s just a matter of keeping them engaged and figuring out the best way to harness their brilliance towards achieving our collective goals.