The Power to Create Change
With vision, determination, and help from family and some high-profile friends, Philadelphia physician Ala Stanford is taking an innovative approach to bridging the health care gap in her hometown.
If Ala Stanford had been offered the job at any other point in her career, or if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t happened, she may well have stayed on as regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But Stanford was tapped for that position in 2022, less than a year after she founded the Dr. Ala Stanford Center for Health Equity (ASHE), a project dear to her heart and, as she would soon come to realize, foremost on her mind. Even as she gave the HHS appointment her all, the center’s importance in her life—the reasons she set it up, and what she wanted it to become—got the better of Stanford, leading her to understand that it was where she wanted and needed to be. And so, roughly a year after beginning her role with HHS, she resigned.
“When the president asks you to come to work, you don’t say no,” she says. And despite the brevity of her tenure, Stanford ’91 Sci, ’97 MD Medicine, a pediatric surgeon, embraced the role, traveling through the six mid-Atlantic states under her mandate, meeting with residents from varying socioeconomic backgrounds (she was responsible for a couple of tribal communities, too), gaining insight into their health care needs, learning the workings of state and federal health care policy, and liaising with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. When she started the job, mpox (then known as monkeypox) was headline news; it was hitting Philadelphia harder than the rest of Pennsylvania. Stanford’s understanding of the disease and its impact, as well as her reputation as a physician, provided the heft needed to convince the CDC in a single Zoom call to rejigger its distribution plan for the mpox vaccines in Pennsylvania and send more to Philadelphia than to the rest of the state.
But for a doctor, the position left much to be desired: Policy-heavy, it offered few opportunities for clinical practice, and none for a surgeon. Stanford—among the first African American female pediatric surgeons trained entirely in the U.S., who’s performed delicate operations on premature babies who weigh less than a pound and are no bigger than the palm of her hand—hadn’t been in an operating room since February 2021, but she missed the practice of medicine.
More to the point: “I wanted to continue building ASHE and making it sustainable,” Stanford says. “I think I’m a creative person. I need to use that.”
Her brother and closest confidante, Kamau Stanford, says Stanford is a doer. She’s “an innovator,” he says, as shown by the Herculean pandemic effort she spearheaded to first test, then vaccinate, thousands of Philadelphia’s Black and brown residents through the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, an organization she informally founded at the time, and that later formalized to become the foundation of ASHE. It was an effort that did not go unnoticed by the federal government and that resulted, ironically, in Stanford’s appointment to the very position she resigned from in May.
“When COVID hit, Ala called me and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” says Kamau, a former Los Angeles–based educator who’s now CEO of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium. “She had it all planned, and because of our high-level ability to work together, we were able to coordinate an operation. The world shut down on March 11; I think we probably had our call about what we were going to do on the 30th of March, and then by April 2nd, we were out.”
“Out” meant exactly that: administering COVID-19 tests from vans in locations throughout North Philadelphia—in high school and church parking lots, outside mosques, inside public transit stations, and at community centers.
Kamau managed the messaging and coordinated communications, which resulted in widespread media coverage on a range of platforms, including ABC News, MSNBC, and CNN. Stanford, who’s been in private practice since 2015, also has a successful concierge medicine business through which she treats, among others, actor and fellow Philadelphia native Will Smith, his family, and Smith’s entire production staff. Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Spike Lee also drew attention to Stanford’s work.
Stanford leveraged her connections with test manufacturers such as Labcorp and PlexBio to procure the kits, which she self-financed. The siblings also managed to source highly coveted, hard-to-find PPE and masks. Then, they assembled what Kamau describes as a “ragtag army of dedicated, trusted people,” which included their parents, Stanford’s mother-in-law, and close friends such as sisters Tracy Wood ’92 Lib and Lesley Wood ’91 Bus, none of whom had medical experience but were eager to help in any way they could. Stanford also enlisted several Black doctors—a cardiothoracic surgeon, a general practitioner, and her children’s pediatrician, among others—who, unable to practice at the time due to pandemic restrictions, were itching to use their skills.
“The first day I went to do a COVID test, I didn’t even know how,” she says with a laugh. “I’m a surgeon; we don’t do tests like that. We were all ready and in the van, driving to our first stop, and I say, ‘So how exactly do you do a COVID test?’”
She must have done something right, though, because the people came—a few at first, but then in increased numbers. With support from the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that Congress passed in March 2020, Stanford’s group was able to secure state, local, and federal funding, and scale up their efforts significantly.
“We went from testing seven people to, I think, 150 people to almost 400 people in a day,” Kamau says. “The rest is just history, and people believed in our work, as evidenced by fundraising efforts that amassed millions of dollars from local, state, public, and private donors.”
Stanford was one of the first people in Philadelphia to procure tests and vaccines once they became available, and ultimately, her “ragtag army” would end up administering them to more than 100,000 Philadelphians, many from the city’s most vulnerable communities. For her efforts, Stanford gained national recognition and was named a 2021 CNN Hero. But the accolades, the media spotlight, and a guaranteed spot on the speaking circuit did not matter to her as much as what she learned during the course of her pandemic work: that in Philadelphia, and particularly among the city’s poorest residents, there is an acute need for medical care.
“People would wait in line and we’d say, ‘OK, is this your second shot, third shot? Do you have your card?,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh Doc, I’ve already gotten all my vaccines, but I have this lump in my neck. Could you look at it and tell me, should I be concerned about it?’” Stanford says.
For many reasons—economics, limited access, historical distrust of the medical establishment—health outcomes for Black and brown communities in the U.S. are worse than they are for other groups. But many of the conditions people were bringing to Stanford’s attention could have been prevented, or their effects at least diminished, with regular checkups, medication, and proper testing. Someone had to provide those services to Philadelphia’s underserved communities, to offer a space free of bias, systemic hurdles, and onerous costs, to the many residents sorely in need of it.
Having won the trust of thousands, Stanford knew she would be the one.
“She wants to make sure that we build a legacy beyond our lives,” says Tracy Wood, “a health care center that will last forever in a community where people die 20 years younger than people that live outside a one-mile radius.”
Stanford always wanted to be a doctor. She always wanted to take care of people. A driven student who loved science, she worked hard in school, college, and medical school. Yet Stanford admits that her primary inclination toward medicine was driven by the desire to escape poverty. She was tired of never being able to have the things she wanted to have growing up with a single mother who gave birth to her at the age of 14.
“Yes, we were poor,” says Kamau, who is four years younger than Stanford. “If we were on the bus, we would play the game, ‘That’s my car.’ You know, you’d wait for cars to go by and be like, that’s my car. That’s my car. And then, that’s the life I want to have when I grow up. We just knew that we wanted to live a different life.”
Theirs was a life of food stamps and welfare, of never having enough of anything—especially their mother, who worked long and hard as a department store manager, first in Lockport, N.Y. (she left Philadelphia with Stanford and Kamau when they were small), and then in South Plainfield, N.J. The siblings were latchkey kids: “My mom would come home really late at night and then just pass out on the couch,” Kamau says. Stanford believes that she was motivated to become a pediatric surgeon to give to others what she lacked in childhood, “not material things, but things like time and engagement with adults, reassurance, and positive reinforcement.”
His sister mothered him, Kamau says, and until he entered sixth grade, when he was sent back to Philadelphia to live with his father, the siblings were super tight. They drifted apart during their college years and in the first years of Stanford’s medical career (after Penn State and Penn State College of Medicine, she trained in surgery and then pediatric surgery before securing her first job at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital). They reconnected again in 1996 and have been best friends and confidants ever since.
For Stanford, having a group of trusted friends and family to lean on is important, says Tracy Wood, with whom she’s been close since they were 7 years old. When Stanford accepted the government appointment, she asked Wood, who at the time worked in administration for the Philadelphia school district, to help lead the freshly minted ASHE. “I have a background in finance and business, and she believed I would support her vision for ASHE,” Wood says. “I had the skill set, and I understood the mission and vision of the organization.”
It’s that mission and that vision that continue to inspire Wood, her sister Lesley, and all the volunteers—family and friends—who were part of the Stanfords’ COVID-19 effort.
“On our website,” Wood says, “we talk about education, access, and empathy, but she genuinely cares about her patient community. She genuinely cares about her community’s access to quality health care. She is a trailblazer.”
As the worst of the pandemic drew to a close, the medical practitioners of the informal group Stanford assembled had established themselves as the Black Doctors Consortium; Wood serves as executive director of the organization, and Kamau is its CEO. ASHE formally launched in November 2021 to embody Stanford’s desire to provide “compassionate, expert, and barrier-free medical care.” Located in a remodeled 12,000-square-foot space on Philadelphia’s West Lehigh Avenue that once served as a church day care center, ASHE provides primary care medicine, gynecology, pediatrics, men’s health, and mental health services. The center has the capacity to perform EKGs and blood draws, has eight examination rooms, a mental health suite, and a community space that can be configured for different kinds of events. The center is open to anyone, regardless of their ability to pay.
Beyond a focus on quality care, the center’s design and décor have been carefully planned to make ASHE as hospitable a space as possible, from the light yellow paint on the walls to the artwork—curated by local artist Dori Desautel Broudy—to the plants, and the fish tank in the welcome center. Even the floors are made from a soft material specially designed to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers.
“There’s free clinics all over the country, and most of them are places you wouldn’t want to be caught dead in,” Stanford says. “That’s for a reason—it’s because of how they look. It’s because of how you feel when you get there. We want to be seen as an organization that turns that paradigm on its head.”
It’s important to her that patients—all patients, from all walks of life—feel welcome at ASHE. “We want to give people what they deserve. We are a free clinic, yes—if you have insurance, we’ll take it, if you have money, we’ll take it. And if you don’t, we’re still going to see you and you’re going to get the same thing as the person with the PPO who just left in a Range Rover. You’re going to get it all.”
Stanford’s vision for the center goes beyond medical care: She wants it to be a community center, a place where people can gather information and resources, knowledge and education, and if need be, material things they can’t afford. (Wood says Stanford recently bought a car seat for a patient.) ASHE organizes health fairs and invites organizations such as PECO, a Philadelphia-based utility, to participate and offer both reprieves and guidance to individuals who might not be able to pay their gas or electric bills. The center guides uninsured individuals through the process of finding insurance. And ASHE is still very much a family-run affair: “My mother-in-law answers my phone on Tuesday and Thursday,” Stanford says. “My mother answers my phone on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”
ASHE has thus far been able to fulfill its mission thanks to strong financial support: in addition to Stanford’s personal contributions, there was $50,000 raised via a GoFundMe campaign, mirrored by a $50,000 check from Jada Pinkett Smith, who gave ASHE a boost on her Red Table Talk show. (Stanford remains close with the Smith family: When they were younger, her brother tutored the Smiths’ children, Willow and Jaden, and until he joined his sister’s organization, Kamau was the director of the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation.)
After the initial cash infusions, there were city grants, state grants, some federal grants. There were private donations, too, both small and large—all welcome and meaningful. “It started naturally during COVID,” Stanford says. “People would just show up when we were testing and say, ‘Here’s $30,’ or ‘here’s $300,’ and not leave their name or anything.”
But as the pandemic wound down, balancing the center’s mission with fresh funding has become a greater challenge—not least because ASHE treats more uninsured and underinsured individuals than it does insured individuals. That means fundraising is ongoing, a constant endeavor that includes applying for federal, state, and city funding, approaching private donors, and holding funding drives online and through in-person events. “Every time we open our doors, it’s about $17,000 with staff and overhead,” says Kamau. “The [COVID] emergency is over, the windfalls being thrown around is over. Now, it’s about strategic partnerships, it’s the writing of grants, it’s the money that trickles in from seeing patients, and a whole lot of faith. It’s what keeps me up at night.”
Stanford says she’s not worried. She’s optimistic that there’s enough support—financial and otherwise—for ASHE: In November 2022, the center received $1 million from Pennsylvania Senate and House Democrats. This year, the center received $3 million in federal funding thanks to Philadelphia Congressmen Dwight Evans and Brendan Boyle. She is eager to continue growing ASHE and has plans to expand its suite of medical services and add CT scans, mammograms, ultrasounds, and chest X-rays to the menu. She hopes to bring more doctors on board.
Stanford believes that the experience she gained during her brief tenure with HHS will help her better serve her constituents; for one, she understands the inner workings of programs like Medicare that are vital to her clientele. She’s also gained an insight into policymaking by institutions like the CDC and agencies like the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), which means she can better guide patients toward needed resources.
More importantly, Stanford says, the job helped her better understand the “prevailing narratives” about the health of African Americans and other minorities, and how rewriting them can help these communities better understand their health and their health care needs. “When people are asked, ‘Why do Black Americans have a higher incidence of asthma,’ the first response they’ll give you is because they smoke too much,” she says. “But the American Lung Association puts white Americans smoking at 15% and Black Americans at 14.8—virtually the same. You have to take into account other factors, like the social determinants of health.”
Rewriting such deeply embedded narratives is simply another challenge, and Stanford says she takes every opportunity she gets to gain her constituents’ trust; she’s committed to “dispelling subjective narratives with objective data.” She’s on the media circuit, and she’s often out on the streets, visible and vocal at community events such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Juneteenth. “Right now,” she says, “I want to make sure the center is sustainable, that we are getting the word out to everyone in a five-mile radius at minimum.”
But change, Stanford says, takes time. Legacies are not built overnight. She points to a photo of Ruby Bridges, the first African American child to integrate an elementary school. It belonged to her husband’s maternal aunt, and Stanford has placed it on the wall behind her desk at ASHE, right in the middle of her many degrees and certificates. “As a Black woman, I’ve worked hard to get to where I am now,” she says, “but had it not been for little girls like her, none of this would have been possible.”
In the Yoruba language of West Africa, ashe is a philosophy embodying the power to produce change. As such, it’s a fitting acronym for a health care center created to effect meaningful and lasting change, with a leader who is helping to reshape health outcomes for as many people as possible.