Born “in a time of turbulence,” Hanh Cao Yu has turned her struggles into a lifetime of working with philanthropy to stay grounded in diverse communities.
Airlifted out of Vietnam when she was seven years old, she considers herself to be one of the lucky ones to have made the journey of freedom to California, the “Ellis Island of the West.”
Though she has worked on a multitude of issues in her 20-year career at a research, evaluation, and technical assistance firm, Social Policy Research Associates, Hanh has never veered from her passion for diversity, equity, inclusion, and support for vulnerable populations.
Making the philanthropy world more culturally responsive has been a main focus of Hanh’s.
“The philanthropy world can be a very closed circle,” Hanh explains. “It’s all about who you know.”
In her more than 20 years in the philanthropy field, Hanh has seen foundations become more public about their willingness to embrace new players, try new things, and invest in communities of color.
For her New Connections grant from 2009 – 2010, she worked to create a mini-documentary featuring nine San Francisco Bay Area leaders who received the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Community Health Leader awards between 1990 and 2010. As a principal investigator of the project, Hanh sought to share stories of the inspirational leadership pathways of this diverse group of prominent leaders.
Through interviewing those leaders, Hanh was struck by their courage in negotiating entrenched systems for better health and lasting social impact in their communities.
“It wasn’t just a job for them; it was a social change mission,” Hanh recalls.
Hanh fosters cross-sector collaboration to improve well-being by thinking first and foremost about community residents.
“We have to work with residents — including the most vulnerable, disadvantaged individuals on the margins of society — and empower them to promote the Culture of Health’s drivers of change,” Hanh asserts.
Lately, Hanh has focused her work on place-based field-building initiatives, including the Healthy Richmond Building Healthy Communities initiative, San Pablo Area Community Revitalization Collaborative, and the Blue Shield Against Violence Strong Field Project. Though these projects differ in focus, Hanh’s evaluation of them consistently looks at communities’ social determinants of health to ensure they are addressing equity and inclusion.
“Education, language access, access to health coverage, affordable housing, employment, vibrancy of neighborhoods, economic vitality, and community public safety ... Those are the necessary conditions for communities to flourish,” Hanh states. “They’re the things that create health and well-being.”