Five Questions with Shayla Scarlett, MBA, MPA, DipACLM

Shayla Scarlett

The word Community might as well be Shayla Scarlett’s middle name (it’s actually Jelane’). Since grade school, GW Cancer Center’s Assistant Director for Community Outreach, Engagement, and Equity has been building relationships in her globe-spanning communities through outreach and activism, coupled with a passion for the intersection of health and well-being. And she’s only getting started.

What’s your story?

I was raised in South LA by my single mom. Growing up, I was involved in student government and the Girl Scouts, which I started as a Brownie and continued through eighth grade. I believe Scouting was a foundational element in developing my desire to help people.

I was in middle school during the 1992 Los Angeles riots (sparked by the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King case), and I watched my community burn down. My mom was getting more politically engaged, trying to figure out how we could better our community, and I later followed in her footsteps by getting involved with Agenda for Action Among Youth in the summer of 1994, which is how I got started with community organizing. Our work focused on issues affecting young people in South LA and mobilizing the community around local and state legislation, including landmark Proposition 209.  During my high school years, my work was recognized by a member of Congress and local officials.

I attended an accelerated MBA program at Florida A&M University and participated in several internships, including a nine-month position at Pfizer in New York City, which was one of my early introductions to the healthcare sector. I worked in corporate America for a while and decided that wasn't for me. I got my MPA (Master of Public Administration), which took me back to the nonprofit world, where I worked in fundraising, organization development, and strategy. Full circle: I worked for Girl Scouts of Greater New York for nine years.

I love to travel, and I got the opportunity to work internationally. First, in Japan as a youth development contractor for the military, and then in Botswana with the Peace Corps Response Program, an HIV/AIDS post, where I was assigned to the Botswana Scouts Association. Another opportunity to work for the World Organization of the Scout Movement took me to Malaysia for three years.

After losing my stepmom and best friend, one right after the other, I re-evaluated my priorities and moved back to the US. I landed in DC without a job and, through a series of connections and lots of searching, found the role I’m in now posted on LinkedIn.

Shayla featured on a Girl Scout Thin Mints Cookie Box
Fun Fact: Shayla’s picture was on the Thin Mints cookie box from the time she was in middle school until she went to college! 

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

My stepmom died from uterine carcinosarcoma. It’s a rare and super-aggressive uterine cancer. That’s when I really understood what it means to have insurance and that all insurance is not created equal. You have to understand the difference between in-network and out-of-network coverage. I was in Malaysia researching treatment protocols, clinical trials, and experts who might be able to advise on the case and perhaps offer a more targeted treatment approach—an out-of-network expense. At some point along the journey, I remember observing certain physical manifestations and telling my sister specific questions to ask the doctors. It didn’t help that we were in the midst of COVID, and access to timely care was a significant barrier. The whole situation didn’t sit right with me, and after my stepmom passed, I went searching for the words that fit how I was feeling, and I wondered how I could help prevent this from happening to other people.

Now, words like health equity are part of my daily language. I want to make big systemic changes, but I’ve come to realize that small efforts, little dents in the surface of the health system, can make a big difference, too. If I can change the lives of one or two people when I go out into the community, then I’ve accomplished a lot because changing those lives can have a ripple effect that reaches further than I can do myself. My personal mantra is to live free and engage in life-changing work. It became my North Star a few years ago – and I follow that star every day.

What is the one book that has influenced you the most?

The Alchemist [by Paola Coehlo] is what came to mind first. It’s about the journey of self-discovery, following your desires and passions; it's really a message of perseverance and reflection. Those are key themes in how my personal journey in life has played out. I’m a very reflective person, and I’m always asking about the why of different situations and what I can do differently. It’s been a great guidebook.

What absolutely excites you right now?

The Wellness Center excites me—a lot! It’s a space that didn’t exist a few months ago, and now it’s starting to take form. We conducted focus groups with community members who told us what’s important to them and what they want and need. The architects took all that into consideration when they drew up the plans. Now, we have a virtual tour that walks you through the entire space to see what it could potentially look like.

I have a passion for lifestyle medicine and just got my certification. I’m really curious to see how lifestyle medicine can be put into a public health context so we can focus on prevention. I believe that food is medicine. We’re planning on having cooking demonstrations, and if we can show people how to make incremental changes that will make them healthier and stave off chronic disease, we’ll have made a huge impact.  I’m excited to build partnerships that can benefit the entire community. I’m excited to create a community of care.

What’s the most important thing we should know about you?

When I think back to one thing from my time working at Girl Scouts, defying conformity was a central message that we shared with our young people as we galvanized them to be courageous in discovering themselves, connecting with others, and taking action to make the world a better place. I even had a Girl Scout branded t-shirt with this slogan on it. Deeply rooted in this spirit, I feel like I’m here to change the narrative and disrupt how things are working now to make them better for the collective. I feel confident and powerful in my ability to identify and build the relationships that will make change happen.

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