Rita Landgraf has a long and distinguished career serving Delaware. She is perhaps best known for her role as Secretary for the state Division of Health and Social Services (2009 – 2017). Yet her service is much broader and deeper, including previous service as executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and the Arc of Delaware, and as president of AARP Delaware. She currently leads the US Partnership of Healthy Communities.
What motivated you to get involved in public service?
I have a strong interest in working to promote the public good with an emphasis on advancing health and well-being. Most of my adult life, I have been focused on the most vulnerable populations that experience the poorest quality of life. It is so humbling to work in concert with others and honoring the ideal that the sum is greater than its parts. Public service and specifically leading the Department of Health and Social Services provided me with the platform to advance policy and service delivery to enhance the quality of life of all Delawareans. It was a huge honor to serve our state.
What community endeavors are you proudest to engage in?
This question is of particular interest to me since the word community has many connotations to it. A community can be a geographical location, or a community can be a specific grouping of individuals with a specified mission or characteristics. I have benefited from a multifaceted engagement with “community.” I am most proud of the work I have engaged in with individuals with disabilities, and in advancing the civil rights of this population. I am also extremely proud of the work I am engaged in with advancing health equity in place-based communities that experience high poverty.
How does your organization contribute to expanding opportunity for people in Delaware?
I am excited to bring what I have learned in the field to the classrooms of the College of Health Sciences to help grow the next generation of health and social services professionals. I am equally excited to lead the UD Partnership for Healthy Communities; a cross-college, cross-state initiative. This provides me with a platform to align the assets of this university with the needs of our community by advancing research, education and service. As a University of Delaware alumna, I have great pride in serving as faculty at the institution who provided me with a solid educational framework.
Is there a philanthropist or philanthropic organization that inspires you?
Since most of my career has been in nonprofit organizations, I have witnessed firsthand, the value of philanthropy. Individuals who have a passion to engage in the causes they believe in and invest in the sustainability of the work inspire me. I am very excited about efforts that align for collective impact, which generate a greater return on single investments. United Way, Delaware Community Foundation, Philanthropy Delaware and Healthy Communities Delaware are examples of this collective effort. Delaware is a true state of neighbors and our philanthropists value the ability to align for greater impact.
If you could do one thing to increase equity in Delaware, what would you do?
I would increase the knowledge of what equity really means since there is confusion between equality and equity. The World Health Organization defines health equity as the highest level of health and well-being possible for everyone. Healthy equity addresses differences in population health that can be traced to unequal economic and social conditions that are systemic, avoidable and are inherently unjust. Health equity benefits everyone because health is a public good necessary for a well-functioning society. If we are going to advance health equity, we must embed it in our overall values and commit to advancing equity where inequities continue to exist.