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College of Social Work

  • Master of Social Work alum Kate Stigberg

Alum Advocates for Healthier Communities by Ensuring Citizens Voices are Heard

Nov. 23, 2020
Chris Woodley •

Election Day is behind us, and every citizen had the opportunity to vote on ballot initiatives and select the candidates who best match their ideology and vision. But one alum works throughout the year to ensure initiatives and measures are on the ballot to improve citizens health and accessibility.     

Kate Stigberg, MSW ’09, always pictured herself helping others. She worked as a foster care manager after earning her undergraduate degree. But the job affected her health and personal life, and Stigberg decided to relocate to South Carolina to pursue her Master of Social Work degree. While she initially aspired to become a therapist, her first field placement helped her determine a different career path.  

“I was at a cancer center and quickly learned that I was not cut out for one-on-one social work,” Stigberg says. “But while I was there, I felt that we were being reactive to common barriers that people face. I saw it as the bigger system and decided to go the macro (state and national level) route. For example, how could I lead changes at a broad policy level to ensure that people don't have to worry about receiving life-saving medication if they can't afford it?” 

Stigberg received a head start on her future career in activism by volunteering for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. She also attended her first political rally, which reinforced her decision to work as an advocate to improve the lives of individuals and communities.

“Being at the rally with my fellow social work students was empowering and an affirmation that I was on the right path,” Stigberg says. “I knew that activism was what I wanted to devote my life to, and the College of Social Work allowed me to meet advocates and activists who helped me realize that I could make a career out of my passions.”

Stigberg moved to Colorado after graduating and first worked as a union organizer with the state employees’ union and the American Federation of Teachers. But the stress of working political and legislative programs and the additional task of caucusing for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016 began affecting her physical and mental health. It was the perfect time for Stigberg to change jobs and began working at Healthier Colorado, a nonprofit dedicated to working with communities through policy change to improve opportunities for residents to enjoy healthier lives.

“Even though I was not really looking for a job at that time, it was an opportunity to utilize two of my strengths and passions: organizing a field and policy change, and health,” Stigberg says. “There were only two people working at Healthier Colorado at the time, but I knew them from previous work, and now I feel fortunate to work there.”

Stigberg oversees Healthier Colorado’s local level programs and over the past four years, she has overseen more than 30 campaigns. Among some of the measures she has helped pass include several tobacco tax increases, which have funded mental and physical health programs in cities and counties. She has also worked on ballot initiatives to increase the number of ambulance services to rural areas of the state and decrease response times.

“Seeing ballot initiatives pass in smaller communities is most rewarding because they are trying to find healthier solutions for everyone,” Stigberg says. “I help with strategy, voter outreach, and provide financial support, and the communities are grateful for assistance in running a campaign. I also try to convince voters that a small increase in their taxes should fund important services at the community or county level.”

Partnerships in Local Advocacy is one of Healthier Colorado’s local programs through grassroots lobbying. For example, PiLA helped passed a minimum wage increase in Denver last year after emailing approximately 10,000 residents and encouraging them to contact their legislators and vote “yes” on the initiative.  

“If county commissioners or city council members refer an initiative on the ballot, they can't legally work on a campaign,” Stigberg says. “That’s where we can help because our tax status allows us to advocate for issues. Our approach to policy changes are supporting community members with their ideas, so we wait until people come to us for help because they know their communities and the best possible solutions.”

Another important component of Healthier Colorado’s work is sharing stories and finding residents who can tell their story and add a personal touch to proposed policies.

“For example, I oversee a climate project, and our role is to dampen down the partisan nature by talking about the health impacts of climate change from the perspective of doctors and nurses who see the firsthand effects in the ER or at their clinics,” Stigberg says. “This includes the increased rates of asthma, complications from diabetes, and other symptoms. We try to uplift people’s personal stories and experiences to support the science and facts.”

While the word activism is in Stigberg’s job title, she believes all social workers have a responsibility for advocacy and activism. 

“Social workers see the impacts that policies have on people,” Stigberg says. “It's up to social workers to advocate and speak on behalf of their clients or patients. It sometimes takes large scale changes for things to happen, and social workers understand the different systems and institutions involved.”

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