In this Presidential Leadership Scholar spotlight, Anita Ravi, CEO and Co-Founder of PurpLE Health Foundation, discusses her passion to build health care systems for survivors of gender-based violence, and the lessons she learned in the Presidential Leadership Scholar Program.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your personal leadership project (PLP).
I am a family medicine physician and the CEO and co-founder of the PurpLE Health Foundation (PurpLE Health). Our nonprofit organization builds health care systems for survivors of gender-based violence (GBV)– including women and girls who have experienced human trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual assault. Because this population is largely invisible in the conventional health care setting, we are working to accelerate access to excellent care through a combination of direct services, research, and training. Through PurpLE, which stands for Purpose: Listen and Engage, GBV survivors receive free, holistic, trauma-informed long-term physical and mental health care, and, in turn, we identify and develop best practices in care delivery for this population to share with health care professionals across the country. My personal leadership project was to transition PurpLE Health from a startup to a sustainable nonprofit organization.
Please give us an update on what you have been working on since completing the Presidential Leadership Scholars program.
Post-PLS, I’ve enjoyed continuing to grow PurpLE Health in a variety of ways, including patient care, and by spending time in several incredible fellowships that support social entrepreneurs, such as the Roddenberry Fellowship and New Profit’s Mental Health Equity Catalyze Cohort.
I’m also excited to share how PLS has led me to embrace my interest in visual communication through stick figure drawings and animation! As context, I began drawing stick-figure cartoons on Post-it notes when I first piloted PurpLE in 2015 as a way to communicate the lessons learned in delivering care for GBV survivors beyond spoken or written language. Through the years, my stick figure comics have evolved into a key training and advocacy tool I use at PurpLE Health. During PLS, I started experimenting with drawing concepts from lectures, and took a chance by sharing them with my classmates.
To my surprise, they were incredibly supportive and encouraging, and that has helped me lean in to creating and sharing the power of stick-figures in different settings. A recent highlight was an invitation to facilitate a stick-figure drawing communication workshop for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Special Victims Division and Witness Aid Services Unit (which included my PLS classmate Melissa Martinez)!
Which lessons learned during the Presidential Leadership Scholars program have stayed with you the most, and how have you put those lessons into action, whether in your work with PurpLE Family Health or elsewhere?
I applied to PLS because I was seeking a community to both learn from and lean on. And that’s exactly what I found and continue to find.
The journey of building a nonprofit and medical practice from the ground up is exciting, daunting, and, at times, isolating. As PurpLE’s design involves both the health care and the nonprofit industries – two sectors that don’t frequently overlap in the startup space – I routinely sought advice in order to answer the ever-present question of “Am I doing this right?” But I also found myself confronted with well-intentioned advice that required a tradeoff between sustainability and authenticity to our mission. As a physician CEO who was both building a new care model and delivering care within it, the stakes often felt unmanageably high to secure funding to sustain the organization while upholding the key principles of trustworthy care. Fortunately, PLS is structured to normalize reaching out and asking for help, and that implicit expectation and understanding is infused throughout the network, transcending classes and titles. Reaching out and feeling comfortable asking for concrete help has been a skill I have had to actively practice during and post-PLS, but it has now become a reliable mental parachute, as I know that I am never actually alone when navigating challenging situations as they arise.
What does the health care industry need to prioritize to move toward a more holistic, health-focused response to identify, treat, and reduce gender-based violence?
Everyone knows someone who has experienced GBV, whether they realize it or not. But the health care needs of GBV survivors are currently invisiblized by our health care system. Because conventional medical education labels issues such as domestic violence, human trafficking, and sexual assault, as “social issues,” the reflexive expectation is that health care’s main role in survivors’ health is limited to screening for violence and connecting to social services. As a result, physicians are woefully underprepared to diagnose and treat the complex acute and chronic conditions that survivors experience throughout their lifetime.
Despite this current reality, I have a stubborn hope that the health care system can be redesigned to fulfill its potential in effectively caring for survivors and that the key path forward is through “trust engineering” with the community. I demonstrated this concept in a Ted-style presentation I recently gave for the National Committee for Quality Assurance titled “Innovation for the Invisible: The Hidden Power of Trust Engineers.” Motivated by my PLS experience, I took a creative risk by using the Super Mario Brothers video game as a tool to show the challenges that patients experience in our health care system (especially those with trauma), and how we can make it better. I hope that the “trust engineering” framework can lead to better care for GBV survivors, and, ultimately, for all.
Can you share about your selection as a 2023 Bellagio Center Resident by the Rockefeller Foundation?
Yes! The Rockefeller Foundation’ Bellagio Center Residency in Lake Como, Italy, provides one month of protected time for project development and connection for artists, policymakers, scholars, authors, practitioners, and scientists from all over the world across every discipline. (prior residents have included Maya Angelou and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg!)
I will be heading to Bellagio this fall as part of the Gender Equality Residency, designed for people dedicated to advancing gender equality through initiatives, policymaking, and public advocacy. My project, tentatively titled “The PurpLE Health Online Collaborative: An Illustrated Healthcare Delivery Training Guide for Working With Survivors of Gender-Based Violence,” will involve further developing my stick-figure drawings and comics as training tools to expand our PurpLE Health training materials. I am still in sincere shock about having this opportunity and can’t wait to make the most of it!