Karen Reitan

Karen Reitan, AM '93

This profile is online-only content from the Winter 2012 issue of SSA Magazine.

It was a chance meeting with author/activist Larry Kramer twenty years ago that gave focus to the professional goals of Karen Reitan. "I was a French horn player who was about to graduate from Oberlin College. I loved music, but it just didn't fill me all the way up. When Larry Kramer described the lack of attention to the AIDS epidemic, I knew this was a cause I needed to support," Reitan says.

A follow-up conversation with a friend sold her on the idea that becoming a social worker would enable her to carry out her newfound mission. As she investigated social work schools, the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) at the University of Chicago impressed her as a place where she could build on the values and principles that were becoming increasing important to her. She went on to earn her MA from SSA with a concentration in policy analysis in 1993, and she is now Associate Executive Director for Operations at the Public Health Institute of Metropolitan Chicago (PHIMC).

She had enjoyed the culture of social progressivism at Oberlin College, but it was SSA's coursework that gave her a solid theoretical framework. "I was always challenged by the texts and discussions, which was good," Reitan says. "My feelings for what I wanted to do were given a vocabulary as I went beyond easy answers to my questions: What is social justice? What is advocacy? What is community organization?"

Having volunteered during college at a shelter for homeless women, her first field placement in a YMCA seemed like a good match. But her caseload of survivors of domestic violence and child abuse eventually led her to the realization that, although she had a good experience with the women and has the utmost respect for those who work directly with clients, she wasn't cut out to be a full-time clinician.

It was in her second field placement—a small collective that had evolved from the reproductive health movement of the seventies—that she found what she loved. There she wrote a grant proposal, analyzed a budget, and created an eighteen-week health care curriculum. Managing programs, she discovered, was really, really fun for her.

Reitan goes on to say that her policy classes gave her the toolbox that she has used in positions ranging from lobbyist to director of network services to public policy director at such organizations as Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, AIDS Foundation of Chicago, Chicago Health Outreach, and STOP AIDS Chicago. In each of the last three years, she has overseen the raising of $1 to $2 million in HIV/AIDS related program resources.

"At SSA I learned how to keep track of big and small pictures at the same time. I learned how to do tasks in very practical ways while honing my ability for critical thinking. On the job, it seems like every minute someone is coming at me with something. I need to figure out how to deal with it. Or I need to quickly decide that I don't know what to do, and then find a resource who can keep the project moving forward," Reitan says.

Reitan anticipates no lack of projects in her future. She believes that, whatever the outcome of health care reform, access to care will be one of the biggest areas of growth—not only in the AIDS arena but across the broad range of issues that vie for the attention of social workers. "Many of our clients have been chronically isolated from the health care system. As access to primary care becomes more available, we will need to work harder to support those who will be attempting to participate in the system for the first time," Reitan says.

She credits her interdisciplinary background with giving her the vantage point to oversee the many components of outreach and education as she carries on her crusade for HIV prevention and AIDS treatment. The lack of affordable housing, for example, is a concern for her because a person with AIDS needs a place to store medications and a kitchen to prepare healthy meals. As a similar situation, she points to the national public awareness effort to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity led by First Lady Michelle Obama as being connected to the battle against diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and other health problems.

"The complexity of future problems will require entirely different sets of skills. And the process of taking on new challenges is what I love about my job. As a student and as a professional, my strategy has always been to make the most of any opportunity to learn. That's how I've developed the confidence to make decisions that not only relate to the situation immediately at hand but also contribute to positive outcomes down the road," Reitan says.