Alumni Interview: Abby Tibbs ’96

  • Vice President of Public Affairs at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU)
  • Responsible for OHSU state, local & federal government relations; social, media, internal communications; marketing service lines, creative services, digital engagement; community relations
  • Part of the three-person OHSU executive team managing the deployment of Covid vaccines at the Oregon Convention Center, Portland Airport, Hillsboro Hops Stadium, Scappoose, and community/mobile based sites
  • Member of Catlin Gabel Contingency Planning Team, Catlin Gabel Advancement and Enrollment Subcommittee, the Red Cross Board, Portland Business Association Board and the Knight Cancer Institute Community Grants Advisory Committee
  • B.A. 2001 Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts
  • J.D. 2007 American University Washington College of Law, Washington, D.C.

You were heavily involved in the effort to get Catlin’s students and teachers back on campus for in-person learning while balancing the needs of students who wanted or needed to stay in remote learning. What was your role in that effort?
I served as a member of Catlin’s Contingency Planning Team, made up of staff, faculty, and parents with varied expertise and perspective.

I was also on the response team for OHSU, addressing the complex issues related to the pandemic and how a large institution with close to 19,000 employees, a health care system, research enterprise and several schools would respond. Additionally, I was focused on OHSU’s role as the state’s leader in public health and science and how the institution could best support the Governor and the State’s approach to managing the pandemic. On some level many of the issues were similar to Catlin, such as, how do you close and reopen and operate in an environment that immediately went to lockdown? What is the lens for making decisions? How do you organize to make decisions in an ever-changing complex and unpredictable environment? I was also involved in the conversations on the front end with the state of Oregon about whether the state should move to close the schools, informed by our scientists who provided much of the science and data to help make that decision.

Very quickly into the pandemic it became apparent that the depth and breadth of equity and economic issues were going to be significant, and the conversations really shifted at OHSU and with state leaders about how to balance the various considerations. I brought all of that to the work on the Catlin committee, because I had spent almost every day, all day, thinking through a lot of these important and relevant issues. I had a real sense, both intellectually and in my heart, about how difficult the decisions were for families, the equity and economic issues around COVID, and how important it was for the disproportionate disease burden for many communities to be centered in Catlin’s approach.

I approached my work as I do generally in life: we have to consider the folks who are most adversely impacted by an action or a situation or are most vulnerable. Even if we don’t have the answers, we should be asking the hard questions. There has to be intentionality in making sure that an approach or policies aren’t racist or biased and leaving people in the community behind.

Is it part of your strategy with the team to communicate often and be very transparent?
I spend a lot of my job doing crisis problem solving and communications, but I do think that ultimately this is a humanitarian crisis. And I think you can’t underestimate or take that for granted, how profoundly personal this experience has been for each and every person. You add in the changing science, restrictions, and overall confusion and it’s sort of a mess. I think about how my team’s work appreciates these complexities, brings digestible, relevant, human-centered information to people. I think there is a tendency to want to have all the information before communicating or know the answers to the anticipated questions, and this was a situation where organizations could actually build deeper relationships and trust by bringing a level of honesty, humility, and transparency about what we know and don’t know. I also think it’s important to clearly communicate the values or lens in which decisions are being made and why. In a situation like this pandemic, not everyone is going to agree with the decisions and there are hard calls to make, but it’s an awesome opportunity to give the audience insight into the type of leadership that’s at work. I'm sure that, in hindsight, there are many things we could have done better, but I think Catlin tried to grow and learn and evolve in productive, good ways in terms of communication and information sharing.

You seem to be a behind-the-scenes leader, who motivates others and gets others involved. What helped prepare you for this type of work?
My childhood helped prepare me most for this work. I credit my parents. They have always given me space to understand my natural strengths and growth opportunities and lean into them in those formative years. That is a lifelong game changer. They instilled in my brothers and me a deep respect for nature, for people and for learning. Growing up my parents were potters, we had less means and lived in a remodeled chicken coop on a beautiful piece of forest property in Vernonia, and we were a working family – planting trees, solving complex problems together, growing our food, and getting to endlessly explore art and nature.

Education is also very important to them, and my parents sacrificed a lot for me to go to Catlin. But when I went to Catlin, I had a foundation that allowed me to really focus on critical thinking and problem solving, to help me hone those skills. I’ve also always been driven in large part by my heart and Catlin gave me a lot of opportunities to understand how my heart fits into who I am and problem solving.

I have been so fortunate to work with great people and with great teams – I believe that you hire really kind people around you who are smarter than you, have a high degree of emotional intelligence and bring different perspectives, and you empower them to lead and you figure out what they need to thrive and you provide that. 

We have younger alums who are craving more of this type of learning from our experienced alumni. Are there any lessons learned through your career that could be shared out to our younger alums?
You will likely come back to your Catlin education more than you realize. Even though I’ve been to law school and have had a decent amount of experience, I often go back to some of the core competencies I gained at Catlin. For instance, when I’m needing to do a last-minute writing project and I’m having trouble getting started, I go back to the four-paragraph essay format or I think about the principles of persuasive writing. My default is to fall back to my really early Catlin years of learning and thinking.

I deeply believe in kindness and decency – that if you treat the person who is cleaning the hospital room the same way as the president of the institution, that it will pay off in spades personally and professionally. Be an authentic person who respects everyone and if you don’t feel like you can relate to the cleaning person or the president, get to know them as humans. You can learn all of the hard skills needed to do the technical parts of a job but it may be nearly impossible to teach people to care more. I believe that this human-centered element is a growing value in the workplace. And if you need more motivation, I once had an intern who a few years later was a decision maker that I needed to persuade and I was pretty glad that I had always treated him well. You never know when your intern could later become your boss!

Ask the hard questions of yourself, others and of institutions, even if you know the answer is unclear – especially as it relates to privilege, bias and human decency. I come from humble beginnings, but even with that, I am a super-privileged white woman who has power and resources. And how I show up with that privilege and power and my level of conscientiousness about that is important – questioning and thinking about implicit bias and anti-racism and my contributions to that. Not that I always know what to do with it, but I do think raising your own level of awareness will allow you to be more impactful in using your power for good and to help address the injustices in our community and the world.

Keep in touch with the people in your life. So many of the opportunities I've gotten in life have some connection back to Catlin. Many of my closest friends in life and the people I would call or who’ve helped me in an emergency, they're Catlin people. Your network is important and nurturing it will be helpful in ways that you might not be able to anticipate now.

Take up or grow your mindfulness practice. Someone recently said to me it’s a super-power and I believe it more now than ever. To be honest, I haven’t really taken this advice myself, and it’s something I’m working on with my husband and our kids. We are all trying to strengthen our mindfulness muscles. I think we all need more tools in our toolbox to deal with personal, professional, and societal stress. Learning to be more present, to breathe deeper and to slow down seems really important!

I guess the last thing I’d say is that if this last year has taught me anything it’s to try and be kind to yourself and others. There’s no such thing as an act of kindness or a gesture of encouragement that is too small.