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On Naming California Wellness Foundation

Tom David

Guest blog by Tom David, Executive Vice President of Cal Wellness from 1996-2002

(Feb. 2, 2018)--In traditional cultures, the act of naming is imbued with deep significance and meaning. A name embodies continuity, connection and respect for tradition. It honors one’s ancestors and carries on a family or tribal lineage. A name also exemplifies the qualities and attributes that reflect the true essence of the name bearer. It conveys a lifelong blessing and it also embodies hopes and expectations for how the name bearer will be in the world. Identity, character and destiny are all implicitly blended into the act of naming.

Philanthropic foundations are rarely named with that kind of intentionality. In the case of The California Wellness Foundation, our name was determined by the former CEO of HealthNet, who had been a longtime proponent of prevention and health promotion. From the beginning of the enterprise, it challenged us to think differently about how we approach our work. Our charter grounds us in the practical reality of supporting direct preventive health services at the community level. And our ongoing interactions with the residents of traditionally underserved neighborhoods have served to sharpen and deepen our understanding of the power of Wellness in their lives.

Most poor people have not had positive interactions with the health care system. It has too often been a place where they received mistreatment or neglect rather than healing. They also do not typically greet official exhortations to “improve their health” with enthusiasm. What may be intended as education is often perceived as a negative judgment about their culture and way of living. “Health” and “Health Care” are concepts that for too many people have taken on a negative connotation that denotes a fundamental lack of respect.

Moreover, the residents of neighborhoods disproportionately affected by multi-generational poverty and violence see “health” as only a piece of the problem. But we have found that they readily embrace the potential of Wellness. For those who have experienced trauma on a regular basis, the potential for healing that encompasses both the body and the spirit is not only culturally resonant, but it also speaks to the deeper quest for justice, equity and voice. The pursuit of Wellness is a journey that embodies resilience, connectedness and personal transformation.

Our early and continued support for grassroots advocacy has affirmed the power of this approach. Widespread improvements in health depend on individuals and families and neighborhoods owning the solution. Research has demonstrated the impact of “social and economic determinants of health,” but it is an abstract concept that doesn’t effectively translate for the people most affected. The pursuit of Wellness is more readily understood and embraced. It reflects the same understandings of context, but in a way that people can actually use to change their lives for the better.

Over the years, most of those aware of our work have taken to referring to this organization as “Wellness.” It is more than just a word or brand. It captures the distinct approach that we have taken to respectfully partner with communities across the state, and to see the challenge of promoting health through their eyes. Our work going forward is to build on all that we have accomplished to date and to even more intentionally promote pathways to Wellness throughout California.

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