"How I'm Building" with Susan E. Schaffler of Bento
You are the Director of Strategic Communications for Bento - an sms platform that pairs food insecure users with free healthy meal options in the area - what led you to Bento?
This is a long story, but for brevity, the collection of soul-to-the-earth good people in my network. I’ve known Andre for about five years and Adam, the COO and co-founder for about a decade. Over the years, we’ve crossed paths and checked in on each other and we’ve always found pearls of wisdom in each other’s experiences. I was coming out of a toxic work situation at the time and there was an opportunity at Bento, an sms engagement platform that improves the health and well-being of low-income community members.
The thing about Bento that intrigued me right away was that it centered its program and product on the idea of dignity.
Being a child who grew up on food stamps and welfare, I know the shame and embarrassment that comes with relying on social services. Before Bento, and before the toxic work situation, I was at a nonprofit called Atlas of Care where I helped people in various communities visualize their care ecosystems using really simple paper and pencil technology. The idea was that by visualizing - by seeing - one’s own situation, that person might be able to adjust, plan, or merely appreciate the people around him or her. And the very act of doing this connected each person to a larger network of care, of consideration, and of duty. Showing this sort of interdependence strengthened community relationships and built resilience in a way that stemmed from internal systems and bonds rather than from external forces.
So with Bento, I felt like I was stepping into a more individual, nuanced approach to building stronger, healthier, and more resilient communities. The idea with Bento is premised on the notion that fundamental human needs must be met - and met while preserving dignity, while showing respect, and while appreciating that person’s value to the health and wellbeing of a community. For me, Bento feels like a tangible and organic continuum of my life-time obsession with understanding what it means to build healthy and vibrant communities and how in order to do so, the individuals within must be equitably valued by others and by themselves.
Doing meaningful work can be incredibly taxing. How do you recharge?
I’ve got a few go-tos: Always going out into nature. Spending time with my kids at the ocean, putting my phone down, and capturing those perfect moments of joy on their faces. I’ve always felt horseback riding was therapeutic for me, and since I never had any money for riding, I learned to ride whatever horse the stable would give me. Riding always calms and focuses me, where the only thing I’m concentrating on is how my horse feels and where my line is to the next jump. Running is also a huge reliever for me. It’s something I can always do and a good way to let anxiety or frustration out. And lastly, rock climbing. Where it’s just me and the rocks. I love the strategy involved in following a good route and the sense of progress you feel when you’ve finished a climb that you couldn’t before.
Recently, I was diagnosed with undifferentiated connective tissue disease which is causing painful inflammation in my upper joints and hands, rendering all my normal activities out of my reach. Like so many others these days, I’ve been stopped in my tracks and have had to slow down and sit. I’m not going to lie, it’s been a hard adjustment in self-care. But also an important one.
Since Bento centers around food, tell us, what’s your go to snack?
Apples, always. Handfuls of almonds don’t hurt, either.
What does Onboard Health’s mission — “building an inclusive health workforce” — mean to you?
Infusing at all levels a variety of perspectives and experiences that are equitably valued.
How have you seen the field of health equity shift in recent years?
I’ve been privileged to have had a few opportunities to work with Tim Niyonsenga at the Michigan Health Endowment Fund. As a program officer of the Healthy Aging and Caregiving vertical, Tim has helped to transform how his organization invests in innovation to improve the health and well-being of caregivers and aging people living in Michigan. His perspective is always based on the sustainability of that innovation, and yet, he’s daring in his approach to exploring what possibilities exist. He comes to mind when I think about health equity and how it’s shifting because Tim’s work has never been about taking an innovation and superimposing it upon a community; rather the innovations are meant to excavate existing local relationships and wisdom, strengthening infrastructures from within through unique approaches to program designs and evaluations, slowly building block by block towards a full systems change that supports the lives and well-being of every Michigander.
Where are you drawing inspiration from lately?
Jaqueline Novogratz. She’s the founder of the Acumen Fund and author of The Blue Sweater and Moral Revolution: Practices to build a better world. She inspires me because her approach to impact has always been to center the voices of the people and leadership of a community and to support them in identifying, innovating, and executing the solutions they need to thrive.
What hopes do you have for health equity in the coming year?
That we continue to show how it’s good business to design systems, products, and programs around the person. That we continue to diversify the perspectives of leadership and that we deepen our listening of those people most impacted by existing systems that have been designed without thought for equity.
There are plenty of resources, creative minds, and loving hearts out there to ensure everyone’s story is heard and that each person’s needs are met. It just means we have to have the will to listen and the tenacity to act.
We’re already seeing this with innovation in medicaid plans and in products looking to address the complexity of someone’s lived experience that impacts her health and well-being. There are people out there leading the way in how to care for their community members by building an infrastructure that at its core is designed to include rather than exclude, that considers the person, not the symptoms. Especially now, where we are all stunned by the pandemic, where our collective mental health is shaky at best, we need to be paying attention and showing compassion differently. Healthier families lead to healthier communities - and for medicaid that’s cost savings.
Susan E. Schaffler is Director of Strategic Communications for Bento. She has spent over a decade in the health and technology sector leading strategy, design research, and impact storytelling for diverse teams and initiatives. Her passion for understanding how to build equitable, just, and resilient communities has led her to focus on building tools and infrastructures designed to support individuals in achieving their full potential. Her work is grounded in multi-method research and anthropology. Susan received her BA in Socio-cultural Anthropology from Columbia University and her MA in East Asian Studies from New York University.