How a new partnership is shaping the future of United Way, and Anchorage

SPONSORED: The local nonprofit is shaking up its vision, with a new team of diverse voices leading the way toward a healthy future for Alaska.

Theresa Lyons, pictured above, is CEO of YWCA Alaska is a member of the United Way of Anchorage community impact team. Photo by Trevor Jones / United Way of Anchorage.

Presented by United Way of Anchorage

United Way of Anchorage is looking to the future.

The long-standing nonprofit may be best known for its helpline, Alaska 2-1-1, or for its many partnerships extending across the state: From health care navigators who help Alaskans access affordable health insurance, to the solution-based Landlord Housing Partnership, to the Alaska Literacy Program initiative that helps immigrants and displaced people navigate life in a new country.

Now, in addition to all of these, United Way is embarking on a new set of partnerships aimed at revealing gaps in local support. To do so, it is bringing community voices to the forefront and asking local leaders to help set the organization’s future priorities.

“It’s a monumental shift in how we work, and how we identify problems and solutions,” said Clark Halvorson, CEO and president of United Way of Anchorage.

The new Community Impact Advisory Team is comprised of fifteen representatives from local organizations. Together, they are helping set United Way’s goals and identifying areas to improve using their unique insights and the power of collaboration.

‘Part of a movement’: Creating a thriving community

Halvorson returned to Alaska in 2020. One of his priorities as the new CEO of United Way was to craft a new strategic plan, as directed by the nonprofit’s board, he said.

Organization leaders wanted to “reassess our identity, and who we are, and what our role is in the community,” Halvorson said.

Board members and staff participated in training from First Alaskans Institute, which helped them understand nuances in equity, diversity and inclusion, Halvorson said.

Afterwards, United Way decided to shake up how it sets priorities. Instead of identifying community issues from within the organization, they are looking outward, asking Alaska leaders to help define its vision, Halvorson said.

The Community Impact Advisory Team is meeting throughout the year to discuss priorities, compare data, and share insights. At the end of 2023, United Way will have a new set of priorities, a guiding “North Star,” said Halvorson. Those goals will be driven not by United Way, but by community leaders and public input.

“That’s really my hope coming out of this,” Halvorson said. “It’s not the United Way … it’s the community saying, ‘here are the things that we want to make a change in.’ "

For Theresa Lyons, CEO of YWCA Alaska, being part of the team is an exciting chance to share perspectives from her lived experience and the community she represents.

“For YWCA Alaska, our mission is about eliminating racism, empowering women, promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all,” Lyons said.

United Way’s efforts to include historically underrepresented groups show its dedication to improving access to services, Lyons said.

“United Way is a part of the movement forward to build equity in Anchorage,” Lyons said.

Community Advisory Team members include Lyons; Sonya Hunte, with the Anchorage School District Office of Equity and Community Engagement; Mai La Vang, program director at Alaska Institute for Justice; Tafilisaunoa Toleafoa, executive director with the Pacific Community of Alaska; Ayyu Quassataq, vice president at First Alaskans Institute; and Antavia Hamilton, with Alaska Black Caucus.

“The Community Impact Advisory Team members represent the strength of Anchorage — its diversity,” said Sonya Hunte.

Other voices include Emily Bokar, innovation strategist with the Municipality of Anchorage; Deanne Woodward, vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Alaska, Anchorage; Katie Reilly, adolescent health project coordinator with the Alaska Division of Public Health; Kurt Hermansen-Jent, mortgage loan officer with Cook Inlet Lending Center, Aaron Legget, President of Native Village of Eklutna; Owen Hutchinson, director of external relations at Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness; Eric Gurley, executive director of Access Alaska; Brian McCutcheon, vice president of behavioral services at Southcentral Foundation, and Nyabony Gat, peer leader navigator at Alaska Literacy Program.

“It’s a refreshed way of United Way approaching the work,” said Cecelia DeKorne, director of education impact at the organization.

The nonprofit hopes to “get a lot closer to the community and make sure that our efforts are actually what’s needed, and are actually having an impact,” DeKorne said.

New insights: What the team has discovered

DeKorne helps manage Cradle to Career, a community initiative that supports Alaska kids from birth into adulthood.

Alaska’s 3rd grade reading levels are some of the lowest nationally, DeKorne said. To understand why, the team is collaborating on ideas and insights.

DeKorne recalled that in the first team meeting, members discussed how environmental factors impact students using a powerful metaphor:

“If a plant is dying, you don’t look at the plant and say, ‘oh, this plant is terrible,’ … you change the environment.”

“We need to understand more about the environment in Anchorage and why some families we’re working with are thriving, and some are not,” DeKorne said, “and we need to change the environment rather than assuming they’re not doing their part.”

By combining data like community health reports, state data, and information from the business community, the team is building a broad understanding of Alaska’s needs. And since everyone is using the same data, there’s no confusion among team members, DeKorne said.

They’ve already uncovered new findings about the health of Anchorage families and students, she said.

By breaking down existing reports the team identified holes in existing data regarding some populations in Anchorage, including a lack of information about disabled residents, and breakdowns by gender and sexual orientation.

In other instances, new disparities in outcomes became clear, Halvorson said. For instance, an initiative to raise Anchorage graduation rates to 90% by 2020 was largely successful — but data shows that the graduation rates of Alaska Native students and some other racial and ethnic backgrounds decreased, despite the overarching trend upward.

“We’re trying to dig into why that is happening,” DeKorne said.

As the team identifies root causes in disparate outcomes, it will guide United Way’s future priorities and how it invests in Alaska.

“We all care deeply about the positive impact, both short and long term, made by this intentional work,” said Hunte with the Anchorage School District.

Community engagement listening sessions are planned from May through August, which will also be included in a final report.

Halvorson urged residents to attend and share their stories, voices, and concerns.

“Please come share with us open openly and honestly,” he said. “Are we missing something?”

The Community Impact Advisory Team’s work, along with public input, will culminate in a strategic plan to lead United Way through 2029, with three major points of focus.

“As a community, if we say, ‘here are the three things that we’re going to change’, we can change anything in Anchorage,” Halvorson said.

This story was sponsored by United Way of Anchorage thanks to a grant from ConocoPhillips Alaska. United Way of Anchorage serves the community as a convener, funder, sustainable changemaker, and as a service provider. If you’d like to join hands with United Way in this work and learn how you can contribute, please visit LiveUnitedAnc.Org.

This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with United Way of Anchorage. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.