Meet the Expert: Mary Thorngren
Mary Thorngren has more than 30 years of experience in managing and providing training and technical assistance to school districts, community-based organizations, public health, and other systems to improve the lives of children, youth, and families. Thorngren is the project director for the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs, a federal collaborative of 21 federal departments and agencies working together to improve youth outcomes. Prior to joining AIR, Thorngren was the vice president for outreach, training, and technical assistance at the National Alliance for Hispanic Health.
POSITION: Managing Project Specialist
AREAS OF EXPERTISE: Youth Violence Prevention, Culturally and Linguistically Competent Care, Technology for Teaching and Learning
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 40+
Q: Why did you decide to go into health education?
Mary: My background is very interdisciplinary. My undergrad program was called “World Issues,” and I focused on Latino communities—increasing the pipeline of Latino health professionals and cultural competence in service delivery. I realized the solutions to the complex issues—like improving outcomes for traditionally underserved children and families—require cross-system approaches. I got my graduate degree in organizational development because I wanted to gain that understanding of infrastructure and organizations. In addition, I’m also a certified health education specialist, because the public health aspect is essential to bring in community perspectives.
Q: What has been your favorite project at AIR?
Mary: Don’t tell anyone—but I’ve liked all the projects I’ve worked on at AIR! If I have to pick, though, the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs has been an amazing project. We support this collaborative in several ways, particularly by writing content for, and running, Youth.gov. The site aggregates content as a resource for youth-serving organizations, so that they can find all the information they need in one convenient place. We also engage youth through Engage.Youth.gov/, which is by, for, and about young people.
I also have to mention the Violence Prevention Training and Technical Assistance Project, which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This project builds on work that we did for the CDC to reduce youth violence, but it addresses all form of violence and works directly with state and local health departments.
Q: How has the field of mental health changed since you first started practicing?
Mary: The change has been dramatic. When I first started working in this area in the early 2000s, many administrators didn’t necessarily understand how mental health belonged in schools. Since then, the number of available school-based, mental health services has skyrocketed, as has administrators’ understanding of its importance. It’s become part of the national conversation around education. I like to think we’ve played a small role in that.
Q: If you hadn’t gone into this field, what would you have done instead?
Mary: I probably would have gone into nursing. I was actually accepted for a nurse practitioner program, but I delayed my start date, and I’ve never looked back. I decided I was more interested in the prevention and community aspect of things—my friends would say I’m a “systems change” kind of person.
Q: What’s your go-to professional resource?
Mary: I frequently refer to the Harvard Business Review—the magazine, the blog, and the website. Their content challenges me to keep improving as a professional. I also find myself frequently referring to Chip and Dan Heath’s works--their books and website. They have great resources on making decisions to match your priorities, teaching that sticks, and the power of moments. Communicating about our work is so important, so I particularly appreciate their insights about that.
Q: What’s the last great book you read?
Mary: What a tough choice! I recently read and really enjoyed My Mother’s Kitchen by Peter Kether, which is a sort of combination memoir and cookbook. The author’s mother is an accomplished chef, and after she has a stroke, he decides to learn and cook her favorite recipes, which helps them grow closer. I love reading about food, especially from different cultures.
Q: If you could have dinner with three people, living or dead, who would they be?
- Michelle Obama, because I just read and loved Becoming;
- Trevor Noah, who I think would bring an interesting perspective to a dinner party; and
- One of the mothers that I met working in Donna, Texas, along the U.S./Mexico border. In an extremely dangerous environment, she established a kind of haven sub-community that helped mothers keep their children safe from gang violence. I was so impressed by her work and her humility.
Of course, the dinner party wouldn’t be complete without my husband David, my son Josh, and his girlfriend Christina. Our dog Bodhi, a rescued labradoodle, would be begging under the table.
Q: Where can we find you on a typical Saturday afternoon?
Mary: Reading and rejuvenating my introverted self!