Healthcare advocate for low-income patients to be honored at Nov. 13 ceremony

Cambridge, MA—The Center for Public Leadership (CPL) at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) has named social entrepreneur Rebecca Onie this year’s recipient of the Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award for her work as CEO of Health Leads, a nonprofit that works to create a healthcare system that addresses all patients’ basic resource needs as a standard part of quality care. The award and $125,000 prize, bestowed biennially to leaders “who have struggled to correct social injustice in the United States,” will be presented to Onie at a ceremony in Cambridge on November 13th.

A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, as well as a 2009 MacArthur Fellow, Onie cofounded Health Leads in 1996 with Dr. Barry Zuckerman in response to doctors’ concerns that the treatments and medications they were prescribing for the poorest of their patients were having little benefit because the patients lacked basic resources such as adequate food and proper heating. Last year Health Leads trained nearly 1,000 college student advocates who “filled” doctors’ prescriptions for these resources. Working in clinics and community health centers in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York City, Providence, and Washington, D.C., the volunteers helped nearly 8,000 low-income patients and their families receive this vital assistance. Moreover, 90% of the volunteers who were graduating seniors entered graduate programs or jobs related to healthcare and/or poverty reduction.

“By throwing a lifeline to low-income patients, Health Leads increases the likelihood that doctors’ interventions will result in better outcomes,” said Casey Otis-Cote, associate director of CPL’s Gleitsman Program in Leadership for Social Change. “And there’s tangible evidence of Rebecca’s success in making this business case to providers: Health Leads’ clinical partners are increasingly willing to pay for these services. That, coupled with the fact that so many Health Leads volunteers are going on to related work, speaks volumes about the larger and more sustainable foundation that Rebecca is building for this movement.”

“The Gleitsman Award is a powerful testament to the impact that our thousands of Health Leads advocates and alumni are creating side-by-side with our physician, social work, and other clinic partners as we pursue a shared vision for a different kind of healthcare system,” said Onie. “Together, they embody the true definition of citizen activists by building a movement for a healthcare system, rather than a sickcare system—in community health centers, health systems, medical school classrooms, state houses, and elsewhere across this country.”

Details about the award ceremony appear below.

WHEN:   Tuesday, November 13
4:30 p.m. cocktail reception
5:30 p.m. award presentation

WHERE:  Nye ABC, Taubman Building
15 Eliot Street, 5th floor        
Harvard Kennedy School


About the Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award: The Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award was created in 1990 by the late Alan Gleitsman to honor leadership in social activism that has improved the quality of life in countries and inspired others to do the same. It is given biennially and includes a $125,000 prize. Past honorees include Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, Gloria Steinem, and Share Our Strength cofounder Billy Shore.

About the Center for Public Leadership: Established through a generous gift from the Wexner Foundation, the Center for Public Leadership advances the frontiers of knowledge about leadership through research and teaching, and deepens the pool of leaders for the common good through cocurricular activities that include skill-building workshops, fellowships, and programming in leadership for social change. More information is available at: