Game changer

The surprising life story of Sacramento philanthropic leader Chet Hewitt

Congresswoman Doris Matsui (left) works at the federal level with Chet Hewitt on plenty of projects, including the Sacramento Regional Health Care Partnership. “We’re in sync,” she said of Hewitt. “We almost finish each others sentences.”

Congresswoman Doris Matsui (left) works at the federal level with Chet Hewitt on plenty of projects, including the Sacramento Regional Health Care Partnership. “We’re in sync,” she said of Hewitt. “We almost finish each others sentences.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF Sierra Health Foundation

It was 1991 when Chet Hewitt realized what he was born to do with his life.

Then a third-year legal intern at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, Hewitt—an unlikely law student if ever there was one—had been called on to defend Patrick, a man who’d lost his house and job after being diagnosed as HIV-positive. Patrick had made purchases on a credit card he stole, and, knowing a jail term would not solve this man’s problems, Hewitt asked the judge for an alternative sentence.

“Let’s enroll Patrick in Meals on Wheels, get him signed up for General Assistance,” Hewitt asked the judge. The goal: to design a plan to resolve some of the man’s root issues.

The judge approved the proposal, and Hewitt left feeling proud of what he’d accomplished that day.

But as he exited the courtroom, he found a group of attorneys had gathered outside. They congratulated him, but one said, “We only want to tell you one thing—you’re not a social worker.”

The comment deflated Hewitt. He turned and walked the full length of the hallway, his thoughts simmering. At the hallway’s end, he turned and walked the full distance back to address the group.

“I think you have forgotten what this is really all about,” he said. “I thought my job was to help people.”

The incident served as an epiphany for Hewitt, now CEO of Sacramento’s Sierra Health Foundation. Twenty-two years later—operating at the nexus of philanthropy, government, public policy and social justice—Hewitt, 54, has dedicated his life to doing “policy work, systems work … [being] a social worker with legal training.”

It’s no surprise when kudo pour in from regional leaders when Hewitt’s name is mentioned. Congresswoman Doris Matsui: “Chet has a sense of mission, compassion and intelligence. He understands things in an operations way, a strategic way.” Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna: “He’s a tremendous resource.” Pastor Rick Cole of Capital Christian Center: “[Hewitt] is very disciplined and very much a leader. He’s extremely bright, but that’s balanced with a big heart.”

But only a few know Hewitt’s surprising story.

Born into poverty and raised in public housing in New York City, Hewitt survived a troubled youth, then went on to earn a law degree without having ever attended standard high school or college. He rose to accomplish feats that are legendary in the realm of child welfare in America. Most recently, Hewitt has transformed the Sacramento region’s largest philanthropic organization into a catalyst for mission-driven change.

How grave were the challenges Hewitt had to overcome along the way? For starters, he was deemed a criminal at age 16 and sentenced to a term at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail in the Bronx.

'A horrible place'

It’s impossible to overrate the impact of a father’s death on a teenager, especially if that child is male, black and living below the poverty line. Psychologists say resentment and emotions related to loss can emerge in disguised forms. Maybe this explains some of what happened to Hewitt when he lost his father, at age 14, to heart disease.

The sixth of eight children growing up in high-density, subsidized housing in West Brighton on Staten Island, Hewitt was identified early on as exceptionally bright. His parents both worked, and “there was a high level of community cohesion” in his neighborhood, he said. But after his father’s death in 1972, none of that helped. Hewitt started skipping school, getting into trouble.

“I fell off the cliff,” he said.

His mother, suddenly supporting the family on one paycheck, was dismayed to see her son link in with the wrong crowd. He joined a neighborhood street gang of African-American youths who battled with a nearby gang of Italian street thugs.

“It was like West Side Story,” Hewitt remembers.

Then, at age 16, the future CEO was arrested on assault charges after a fight. Sentenced to seven months on Rikers Island, Hewitt speaks today in a measured tone when describing the subtext of violence that was always present in that institution.

“It was a horrible place,” he said. “Some of the violence I saw, I’ll never forget. It was very brutal.”

He remembers inmates finding places where guards couldn’t see them, assaulting each other with razor blades, “locks and socks” (a weapon made by putting a lock in a sock and swinging it) and worse.

“An experience like that could push you into a world of hopelessness and violence that would be very, very difficult to extricate yourself from,” he said.

The only thing Hewitt had going for him was his sisters’ weekend visits and jail school. Set a slight distance away from the main containment facility, the old school— where teachers taught vocational education to incarcerated juveniles—provided him some respite from a daily life otherwise filled with angst.

“School was my refuge,” he said.

At some point, Hewitt took the high-school equivalency exam, and his jailhouse teacher told him he scored “incredibly well.” Hewitt remembers the teacher looking at him in puzzlement and asking, “Why are you here?”

In 1976, Hewitt was released from jail and returned to a neighborhood that had begun to change. Factories were closing. The Procter & Gamble plant had shut down, so had Nassau Smelting & Refining Company. More and more of Hewitt’s neighbors were unemployed, and he said, “People began to lose a sense of hope about the future.”

What were the prospects for Hewitt in that environment at age 17?

“I’m not one to do predictive analytics,” he said, “but … I’m young. I’m black. Guns. Drugs. Crack. I don’t have a lot of skills. And I’ve already been incarcerated once. … My mother told me her great fear was that she would get a call one day and be asked to come and get my body.”

But, instead, something happened that saved him.

Two men from the neighborhood—a custodian he had worked for on the school janitorial crew and a fellow who ran the local YMCA—knew Hewitt’s history and decided to intervene. They said to him, “We have something we think you really need. … We’re going to give you a job.”

Hewitt took the gig and never looked back. Through a government-sponsored 18-month youth-employment program, he became program director for a neighborhood YMCA satellite. He ran after-school football and softball games, coached basketball, and got kids to broaden their horizons by, for example, taking bus tours of Central Park and the Statue of Liberty.

The opportunity provided him exactly what all kids need in struggling situations, he realized later: a sense of self-efficacy, a sense of hope, and an idea that “despite the challenges you’ve had in your life, you can get back on track and maybe do extraordinary things.”

He turned the lesson into his life’s work.

“That early job was essential to me,” said Hewitt from his third-floor CEO office at the foundation’s riverside complex. “If those two gentlemen hadn’t given me that job? Maybe right now, I’d be in Attica as opposed to my office here.”

'Can I be a lawyer?'

When his time was up at the YMCA, Hewitt decided to take a leap of faith.

“I took my little suitcase, my brother drove me to the Port Authority, I got on a bus in New York City, and three days later, I got off at Sixth and Market streets in San Francisco.”

He quickly landed a job running an after-school program at a local Catholic school.

Soon, he went to work in a community group home trying to help kids just out of juvenile hall. There, he began to see how flawed the social-welfare system was.

“Kids were being warehoused,” he said. “It became clear to me that positive changes could be made, and I could do that.”

But often his suggestions were dismissed, he said, because he lacked a formal education.

Hewitt (right) poses with Marian Wright Edelman (center), legendary founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Diane Littlefield (left), vice president of Programs and Partnerships for the Sierra Health Foundation.

PHOTO COURTESY OF Sierra Health Foundation

Soon after, he and his first wife, who’d also moved to California from New York, became part of a Therapeutic Foster Parents Initiative program where married couples open up their home for 18 months to foster kids and become their adult guardians with the goal of reuniting them with their biological parents. The couple wound up hosting 10 foster kids, two at a time, over a 12-year period. Hewitt has stayed in touch with many of them to this day, even giving one of them, Michael, away at his Los Angeles wedding a few years back.

At the time, though, his experiences made him question the way the child-welfare system operated. At one point, Hewitt suggested to higher-ups that his 9-year-old foster son Ronald, who had mental-health issues, was being overmedicated with psychotropic drugs. He was told to back off by his supervisors and “stay in my lane.” Frustrated at the inability to help his increasingly zombielike foster son, he finally told them, “As Ronald’s advocates, we think this is wrong, and maybe we should sue you.’

Lawyers got involved, and it was an eye-opener.

“As soon as they came in the room, the conversation changed dramatically,” he said. “I was … wow, that’s interesting.” Thanks to Hewitt’s challenge and the involvement of lawyers, it was learned that three-fourths of the African-American males in Ronald’s facility had also been overmedicated. And Ronald, one of the foster sons Hewitt has kept in touch with over the years, “turned out to be quite manageable and quite the athlete and musician.”

Hewitt’s response to it all, simply: “Can I be a lawyer?”

With no college, and nothing but the high-school equivalency certificate he’d earned in jail, Hewitt set his sights on becoming an attorney. He took a two-day Law School Admission Test prep course, then took the LSAT, an exam college graduates usually spend months studying for. He received a high score and was admitted in the late 1980s to the New College of California School of Law in the San Francisco Civic Center.

Hewitt found studying law tough but exhilarating. In his final years as a law student, he traveled twice to South Africa, right around the time Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years, to help negotiate with the government to repurchase land that had belonged to tribal elders.

Around this time is also when he interned with the public-defender’s office and had his epiphany attempting to help the HIV-positive Patrick. He knew that day in the courthouse hall that he was meant to do systems work that would create opportunities for people who needed them. At the end of the day, he said, “It only counts if you can change people’s life circumstances in some way.”

“I’m not naive,” he said. “People need attorneys, but I decided it was not for me; I was going to do policy work. I started thinking, ’Well, how do you deploy this? You have these skills and passion to help people. Where do you work? What do you do? What’s the job title for that?’”

'Powerful associations'

After graduating from law school, Hewitt went to work at the San Francisco Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. A few years later, he was awarded a fellowship with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization for disadvantaged children. During the one-year program he learned from powerful mentors and deepened his commitment to systemic change. When the fellowship was done, in the mid-’90s, he formally joined the ranks of philanthropy, going to work at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York.

After a time, Hewitt was sent back to California to help build a strategic alliance between Rockefeller and a huge foundation being created in the West—The California Endowment. His was an environment where people in the world of public policy and philanthropy had begun to more fully understand the connection between jobs and health and crime, e.g., social problems, chronic disease and illness all show up in communities when the jobs go away. And this has a huge impact on health-care costs.

“You start to see these powerful associations,” he said.

By the fall of 2000, Hewitt had begun to feel “a little too distant” from the work “in the trenches.” So he quit the bicoastal life and took a job as tough as they come: deputy director of the large child-welfare department of Alameda County, serving Oakland’s poorest citizens. The first week there, the agency director—Hewitt’s new boss —announced he was jumping ship. The following week, Hewitt was handed even more alarming news: His new department had been declared the poorest performing child-welfare system in California. He was threatened, literally, with a state takeover.

It was the point of no return. Hewitt called a meeting of his staff at the Oakland Police Department to give a sense of direction for what might happen next. Three hundred people showed up. And fireworks went off.

The audience was boisterous, shouting him down, calling out to each other during the meeting. One man got up in front of the crowd and poked Hewitt in the chest, challenging his authority. Some questioned his credentials to run the department, on the assumption that because he’d come from philanthropy, he had probably gone to private school and had no experience with the realities of poverty. The irony of this was not lost on Hewitt who used to feel judged for being poor and uneducated.

“This thing had flipped completely,” he said.

Still, he knew he could prevail and set a goal to create the most cutting-edge child-welfare system in the nation. He led his team through a full-scale reimagining of how the department provided services. They figured out ways to prioritize families, use technology to further efficiency and make welfare waiting rooms more dignified. In fact, as director, Hewitt used to dress in jeans and a sweatshirt and go sit in those rooms. “You can learn a lot by seeing what the experience is like for people,” he said. His visits were inspired by a vivid memory of his shame at going to his first welfare office as a teenager in New York City with his mom after his father’s death. “It’s not easy telling strangers your life story and the type of help you need.”

In the end, he launched one of the fastest child-welfare-department improvement campaigns in the history of California. “It was an amazing turnaround,” said Carol Collins, then-assistant agency director for the state Department of Children & Family Services. Within a year, Hewitt was dubbed a miracle worker and named director of Alameda County Social Services Agency with its 2,400 employees and $600 million budget. He was the first African-American in history to head the department, but it’s a fact he doesn’t much dwell on.

“It’s not about race,” he said, “it’s about what you do.”

By 2003, the state-takeover threat was formally rescinded. In just two years, Hewitt and his team had reversed a downward spiral of 15 years.

But the crusade wasn’t over yet. Alameda County was “parent” to 5,000 foster-care children when Hewitt first came to work there. The long-term outlook for kids in foster care is terrible, with 50 percent of them becoming homeless after “aging out” of the system at age 18, and startling numbers of them becoming pregnant or serving jail time.

But the goal to bring fewer children into foster care meant rethinking programs that incentivize agencies to put more children into foster care. In 2005, Hewitt’s team found a fix for this problem. They would request a waiver to allow federal funds to be used to help children who were not in foster care. “We took the biggest gamble we had taken yet by applying for that waiver,” said Hewitt. Basically, the agency bargained away unlimited amounts of federal money in order to retain flexibility to fund programs that kept children with family members whenever possible.

Hewitt was challenged on this from every corner by former allies and advocates who defended the status quo.

“It was tough,” he said, “But you have to stick with your core values. You have to do what you know to be right.” Today, 30 states across the country have adopted this strategy.

Hewitt had been on an aggressive push for change for seven years—and that had taken a toll. He’d been divorced and married his second wife Laura (she worked in the office of Oakland’s then-mayor Jerry Brown) and had become a first-time biological father when Chet “the second” was born in 2004. (The couple would have another son, Stephan, in 2007.) Hewitt started thinking it might be time to find a way to continue his life’s work from a different stage while spending more time with his family. When the Sacramento-based Sierra Health Foundation’s board of directors convinced him that they were looking for a non-status-quo-type CEO who wanted to make a difference, Hewitt snatched the opportunity.

'Have an impact'

Drive east along the Garden Highway just past Chevys Fresh Mex and find an unexpected office complex of pale stone and dark wood nestled up against the Sacramento River. Perhaps this elegant headquarters, with its spectacular view of the downtown skyline, is ground zero for wealthy lawyers or high-rolling political lobbyists?

Well, no. It’s the campus of the nonprofit Sierra Health Foundation, with its conference center available to all and a second building that holds 16 nonprofit tenants who pay affordable rent for their riverfront views.

Hewitt’s corner office on the campus is expansive, with piles of work stacked high, comfortable couches for conversation, and that lovely river view. A framed note from Hewitt’s eldest son hangs on the south-facing wall. “My dad is a hero,” the handwritten memo reads. “He gives money to poor people. He goes to lots of meetings.”

The part about the meetings should not be underestimated.

Shadow Hewitt around on an average workday—even with his athletic inclination still hobbled from the ankle-tendon-repair surgery he underwent in recent months—and a reporter finds herself crossing from one meeting to the next to the next, regarding topics such as homelessness, food access and social determinants of health. Hewitt arrives at each with an iPad, due preparation, his trademark focus and a measure of patience … but not too much. Meetings are necessary, he says, “But the goal is to get to an action orientation as soon as possible.”

“We’re not just seated here because we’re great, nice, incredible people. We’re here to make a difference.”

At a February convening of the SHF’s Healthy Sacramento Coalition’s leadership team—area notables like Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, Sacramento Area Council of Governments executive director Mike McKeever, Sacramento County public-health officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye and Sacramento City Unified School District Superintendent Jonathan Raymond—assembled around the table with Hewitt. The purpose of the meeting was to strategize how to invest in programs that acknowledge a broader view of what constitutes health.

“A lot goes into health care that rests outside of the simple ’clinical-health’ realm,” Hewitt reminded the group. In fact, “you can tell in this country how long you will live by your ZIP code.”

Earlier that same day, Hewitt attended a board of directors meeting of Sacramento Steps Forward, a nonprofit birthed in league with Mayor Kevin Johnson after Oprah Winfrey turned her gaze on local tent cities. Hewitt reminded the group of its ultimate goal: to provide homeless people access to permanent affordable housing.

Sister Libby Fernandez, director of Loaves & Fishes, is a big fan of Hewitt’s leadership on this score: “[He] is a wonderful advocate for our homeless,” she said. “He sees the big picture.”

His impact is quantifiable.

In total, the Sierra Health Foundation has given nearly $22 million in regional grants since Hewitt arrived in 2007. Launched in 1984 when the Sacramento-based Foundation Health Plan converted to a for-profit, the philanthropy began with total assets of $77 million. That number grew to $130 million before the Great Recession of 2007, but the crashing economy sent it plummeting. Plunging property values at properties owned by the foundation didn’t help. Despite the falling net worth, Hewitt and his board continued the commitment to awarding grants, especially to food banks and job programs, and today, the foundation’s assets are back up around $118 million.

In 2011, after health-care reform passed, the institution embarked on the Sacramento Regional Health Care Partnership—a program to improve Sacramento’s flawed safety net in conjunction with the rollout of the changes coming in 2014. Formed in league with other philanthropic organizations, the SRHCP is a good example of the foundation’s new focus on the creation of public/private partnerships that help leverage assets on behalf of the region (see “Top five for change,” above).

In the quest for further such partnerships, Hewitt and his foundation have developed strategies that involve what he calls the “aggressive pursuit” of altruistic and government monies that otherwise might not end up in Sacramento. He has built up his staff—from 14 to 25 people—so as to strengthen internal systems necessary in this pursuit. There are already signs of success—last month, a collaboration of eight of the nation’s leading funders awarded the foundation $200,000 for guiding health initiatives in the region’s most marginalized communities. How many foundations of Sierra Health’s size emphasize partnerships in this way? “We don’t know of any,” said Hewitt. “We believe that our region … can perhaps become a model in terms of how to think strategically and creatively about these issues and have an impact.”

Two years ago, Hewitt was invited to return to his old neighborhood on Staten Island to receive an award from a group of young men he’d worked with at the YMCA after his release from Rikers Island. The plaque in his honor reads: “Thank you for planting an altruistic seed that continues to grow.” Several hundred people came from all over the county to attend the picnic and reconnect across the years—to recall the past, consider the present and imagine the future.

Hewitt’s voice halted with emotion when describing his return to the place where he’d spent those formative years. The community sought to thank him, but it was he who was filled with gratitude—for a mom who taught him the value of hard work, for his loyal sisters who visited him in jail, for the many mentors along his path, for the two neighborhood gentlemen who offered him that first crucial job.

“People didn’t give up on me,” he said simply, with awareness that his life story stands as testament to the many, many kids out there that might also go on to live extraordinary lives if presented an opportunity when it’s needed most.