Presenter Spotlight: 2019 National Summit

Vincent Wong, Director of Community Services, City of Gastonia

Our Presenter Spotlight Series highlights the dozens of leaders dedicated to achieving health equity who will present their ideas at the 2019 National Summit on the Social Determinants of Health in San Diego, Calif. on Oct. 20-22nd.

In order to learn more about careers in the social determinant sector, we asked some of our health equity leaders who will be presenters at our Summit to describe what their work is like, the challenges they face and what they are most proud of.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

Vincent Wong : My first professional job out of graduate school was with the NY State Department of Transportation as a fellow with the Public Management Institute program. After a year in the program and in state governments, I quickly learned my passion was to do work at the local level, to be more hands-on and see the work being done at the ground level. I have held various positions with the City of Gastonia from Transportation Planner, Customer Service Supervisor, Senior Budget Analyst, Housing and Neighborhoods Administrator, Director of Community Development and Innovation and now Director of Community Services for the City of Gastonia.

I was recently named to the inaugural “top 10 under 40” for Gaston County and Gaston County DHHS 2019 “Health and Human Services Hero.”

What are some major takeaways that you want others to learn about YOU and the work that you do?

Vincent Wong : I would like everyone to know that every person—every community has a story. You have to take time to understand the story—the history before you can start to begin working on changing a community. Also, I know this may sound cliché but small change can have big impacts. When I first started in this work, I would just show up for meetings and listen. Just continuing to show up allowed me to build a relationship with community members. Once they saw that commitment, then we were able to start discussing their concerns with me, trusted I was listening and willing to help the best way I could.

It’s truly about building relationships and cultivating them. This is not something you can do alone—I have a great staff and a lot of partners in the community from public officials, citizens, non-profit organizations and local government colleagues.

What does it take to be an effective leader in this field?

Vincent Wong : This is not an 8-5 job—you have to be truly invested in the community and they will see your actions—not just listen to your words. A few years back I was at a meeting and a speaker talked about “knowing ones heart” and that really has stuck with me. You have to be willing to be vulnerable—truly understand other peoples’ perspective. You can’t go in thinking you know what the community needs, you need a shared governance model, to listen to citizens, engage them and promote active citizenship. Let them know they have a voice. You also have to get in the trenches to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work.

In what areas have you made the most impact, what have you learned and what has motivated you to continue work in this field?

Vincent Wong : I have said this a lot but the people and the relationships motivate me—seeing people want to make our community better is inspiring. Seeing people grow and take pride in themselves and actually change to be better, healthier individuals is priceless. We have some true community champions and they push others to do better—including myself.

Some major accomplishments include:

  •  Championing an innovative project that increased the City’s inventory of affordable single-family housing by maximizing federal grants through the construction, sale and reinvestment of funds in constructing more affordable housing. Families now have new homes in the Highland community and more construction is planned.
  •  Spearheading the use of community grant funds to provide infrastructure improvements in low/moderate income areas that improve the neighborhoods. These include LED streetlight conversions to increase neighborhood safety, and a new playground at Erwin Center and teen community garden in Highland to promote safe activities for community youth.
  •  Promoting a realignment of bus routes that simultaneously saved money for the City and made the routes more flexible and user-friendly for residents who depend on public transportation.