The L-Suite examines the diverse ways in which Latinx professionals have built their careers, how they’ve navigated notoriously disruptive roadblocks, and how they’re attempting to dismantle these obstacles for the rest of their communities. This month, we’re talking with Afro-Latina chief executive at the Guttmacher Institute, Dr. Herminia Palacio about navigating severe setbacks, tackling self-doubt, and the professional benefits of being a curious person.
The landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which supports pregnant people’s right to have an abortion, is at risk of being overturned. The nearly 50-year-old precedent has long been under attack by anti-abortion groups, but it has reached a new risk level as conservative justices plan to issue a ruling this June in a Mississippi case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, that could completely reshape reproductive rights in the U.S. On the frontlines of the fight to maintain and expand access to safe, affordable, and legal abortions are health care providers, activists, and researchers — people like Dr. Herminia Palacio.
President and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research organization that works to study, educate, and advance sexual and reproductive health and rights nationally and internationally, Palacio uses her extensive and diverse background in health care, academia, and government to push reproductive rights forward. As chief executive, Palacio is charged with overseeing the organization's long-term vision, including its approach to strategic partnerships, production of trend data overtime, such as Abortion Worldwide and Adding It Up, and state legislation developments.
The South Bronx-raised daughter of Cuban immigrants has a comprehensive résumé. After lengthy stints in academic and clinical medicine — most notably, nearly 15 years at San Francisco General Hospital — Palacio’s professional journey landed her in a wide range of positions in governmental public health and philanthropy, including Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Office of the Mayor of New York City. In 2019, NYC’s former deputy mayor for health and human services was appointed to the top spots at the Guttmacher Institute, where she is leading the organization through one of the most difficult times in its more than 50-year history.
We asked the social justice-minded exec about staying vigilant amid extreme setbacks, overcoming a “crisis of confidence,” and the power of following your curiosity. From maintaining professional longevity to powering through roadblocks, Palacio shares her story and provides advice to Latinas navigating the many sectors of health.
Remaining vigilant amid extreme setbacks
As Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance as a conservative-leaning Supreme Court prepares to hear one of the biggest abortion cases in decades, glimpses into the possible reality for the nation, and pregnant people specifically, have already begun with Texas’ six-week abortion ban. In fact, a total of 529 abortion restrictions have been introduced in 41 states this year alone.
As Palacio leads a pro-choice organization through turbulent times, fighting country-wide abortion restrictions and threats also entails instituting a healthful organizational culture that provides inspiration for a staff that may feel defeated. But this is something that must start with her. Despite the uncertainty and setbacks happening in the states and abroad, Palacio often reflects on the past in order to stay focused on what’s ahead.
“Whenever I'm tempted to be demoralized, I hold close that we have been, as a nation, in darker times before; that progress is never linear, and that there's almost always a backlash to progress, and that progress is almost always made by the extraordinary acts of courage of ordinary people,” Palacio tells Refinery29 Somos. “So I have faith that ordinary people will again step into the fray.”
The mother of two is clear that even though she may not, personally, make a noteworthy amount of progress, her goal is to place those from the next generation in a position to effect change. “I try to stand tall on the shoulders of those before me because there were sacrifices made to get me into this opportunity,” she adds. “I need to stand tall, so that others can step on my shoulders moving forward.”
Breaking a “crisis of confidence”
Although there are a reported 2.2 million Latinx health care workers in the U.S., occupying positions as health aides, nurses, and emergency medical technicians, this number decreases significantly when looking at health care positions requiring higher education. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, women make up 36% of doctors; even so, Latinas account for a meager 2.4% of active physicians. Despite the odds, a medical degree opened the door to a 30-year career for Palacio. But it wasn’t easy.
While Palacio earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Barnard College at Columbia University and a medical degree from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, life outside the classroom made for a challenging academic career. Navigating her parents’ divorce and her mother’s declining mental health, the Cuban-American public health leader found school arduous. She struggled to balance her course load with her commute and her mother’s psychiatry appointments, which she coordinated with her older sister. “I wasn't sure I could make it into medical school,” Palacio, now 60, says.
Palacio had what she now describes as a “crisis of confidence.” Having excelled academically up until that point, the then-inquisitive teen struggled with balance and self-doubt. She's not alone. Whether it’s a student’s academic performance or workplace microaggressions, the weight of limiting beliefs can take a toll on a person’s confidence.
For support, Palacio leaned into her lifelong friends, relatives, and professors, transparently sharing with them the mounting pressures she faced during her studies — something she still does when life gets overwhelming. But she also had a moment of self-interrogation. “It's understanding that the adversity is what it is, and you can't control that,” Palacio shares. “But it's believing that you have the right stuff to rise to the occasion and trusting in your own resourcefulness, even when you surprise yourself.”
Following your curiosity
While Palacio’s career trajectory taps a number of sectors within health and public policy, there’s a consistent theme throughout: curiosity. Curiosity is linked with the ability to view tough situations more creatively, open communication among teams, and is an overall value-add to organizations. For Palacio, she uses every position as an opportunity to aggregate information to apply when the time is right.
“There are some people who have very methodically approached their careers,” she says. “In five years, I'm going to do this. In 10 years, I'm going to do that. I'm not one of those people, not because it's good or bad; that wasn't a way that I could authentically manage my career. It didn't speak to my strengths or just my methodology. What I did do, however, I almost always had two-to-five things that I had curiosity about, and often that curiosity had been piqued by seeing people around me doing things that I didn’t understand.”
For instance, while it took Palacio 20 years to enter into philanthropy, she recalls other residents joining this space and how it sparked her interest to learn more. Similarly, her clinical experience, where she worked on issues related to HIV/AIDS, gave her a first-hand view of how federal and state policies coupled with societal attitudes impacted people’s most intimate decisions, years before entering city government herself. Decades later, she’s now seizing the opportunity to work at an organization centering sexual and reproductive health and rights at a moment in time when there’s an assault on reproductive rights.