Black Swans and Wayward Thinkers

Healthy & Ready to Learn in Chicago
Healthy & Ready to Learn in Chicago

At the Carter Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side, the iconic Children’s Health Fund Mobile Medical Unit may have been parked, but it was operating at full speed. Children from a newly arrived family were busy getting their school physicals – including immunization updates and screenings for health barriers to learning – and the parents were being oriented to the array of services being provided. Watching the parents nod, and seeing them smile and ask informed questions reinforced that we’re not just delivering high quality health care to these children, we are providing their parents with the knowledge and tools they need to stay healthy. In this sense we’re not just delivering medical services, we are fostering a new culture of health – one family at a time.

I was in Chicago to participate in the 2017 Social Innovation Summit, a gathering billed as a global convening of “black swans and wayward thinkers” whose mission is to change the way the world solves social issues. And while the summit and my visit to our program at Carter Elementary School were not officially connected, I observed that the groups shared common ground in their dedication to marrying mission with action – not just to talking about the next big thing, but making it happen. Watching our Medical Director, Dr. Icy Cade-Bell, and her team address the range of health care needs of vulnerable children and their families has a lot in common with how social entrepreneurs tackle societal challenges. Each are vanguards in addressing social determinants and in using evidence-based practice to innovate new ways of solving old problems.

Implemented in partnership with Comer Children’s Hospital and the University of Chicago Medicine, the CHF Chicago program is a school-linked model of care that brings health services where children spend most of their waking hours - principally schools and Head Start programs. This integration of health and education has everything to do with disruptive innovation: we all know that education is the key to unlocking the gate and moving out of poverty, so ensuring that children are in the classroom healthy and ready to learn is clearly the first step down that road.

The Stanford University Graduate School of Business defines social innovation as “. . . a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions. The value created accrues primarily to society rather than to private individuals.” At the Summit, dynamic speakers like Aria Finger, the CEO of, spoke about the power of technology enriched platforms that not only engage, but enable young people to take individual and collective action on social issues. She spoke about how young people are using their individual conviction to create groundswells – from the single act of one idealist to an orchestrated movement of thousands. Jackie Parker, President of the General Motors Foundation, spoke about how GM is transforming itself from a car manufacturer to a “technology company that makes cars.” Ideas were omnipresent and inspirational leaders such as Rose Kirk, President of the Verizon Foundation, and Terri Bresenham, President & CEO of Sustainable Solutions, the GE Healthcare initiative, took the stage to talk about ways Verizon and GE Healthcare are marrying ideas with action – all for the social good.

The Social Innovation Summit was held under the banner of being the place where “business innovation meets social transformation” – and set a high standard for positive disruption of the status quo. But throughout the Summit, I kept thinking about the big blue mobile medical clinic at Carter Elementary School; the Doctor’s Office on wheels, with point-of-care testing kits and unparalleled referral management. The business innovation of delivering high quality health services where kids are is the foundation for the social transformation of providing the stepping stones out of poverty. We are one and the same; social entrepreneurs and front line health workers – Black Swans and Wayward Thinkers – each dedicated to societal shifts through individual and collective action. Together we create societal transformation and end poverty – one issue, and one family, at a time.

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