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Humanizing the Data: San Antonio Public Health Guru Colleen Bridger Moves Into Larger Role with the City 

click to enlarge SANFORD NOWLIN
  • Sanford Nowlin
Name: Colleen Bridger
Title: Assistant City Manager
Age: 51
Birthplace: Kalamazoo, Michigan
Big impact: After helming Tobacco 21 and an effort to address childhood trauma as director of Metro Health, Bridger has jumped into an expanded city role with new challenges.
Little-known fact: She once hiked up Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, with her mother, who was 70 at the time.
Money quote: “It’s just an incredible opportunity to be able to say we’re bringing this public health perspective into the day-to-day management of the seventh largest city in the United States.”

Shortly after Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger helped open San Antonio’s Migrant Resource Center, a crew from conspiracy website InfoWars showed up to shoot a video stoking fears that the influx of immigrants would bring Ebola and other infectious diseases into the city.

Rather than slam the door in their faces, Bridger met with the crew, calmly explaining the medical reasons why the city faced no risk from an outbreak. She even led them on a tour, holding a migrant girl on camera and stroking the child’s hair as she spoke.

It was a defusing moment.

Bridger didn’t manage to stop InfoWars from airing its alarmist segment, but her calm, fact-driven approach avoided playing into the website’s hands, according to observers. And by holding the child, she sent a clear and strong signal the public had nothing to fear.

It was a moment, Bridger allies say, that displayed the blend of data-driven logic and calm leadership that helped her excel in her previous role as San Antonio’s director of Metro Health.

That approach is also likely to come in handy in her new and expanded position, which became formal on July 16 after spending four months as interim assistant city manager. City Manager Erik Walsh was originally expected to make the promotion permanent no earlier than September 1.

“It’s been a weird four months, right?” Bridger asked rhetorically. “We’ve had the elections, we’ve had the legislature in Austin, we’ve had the runoff elections and now we’ve got some really stark challenges around the budget. I don’t think I’ve gotten to experience what ‘normal’ is like for an assistant city manager.”

Advancing Public Health

Bridger, who holds a PhD in health services research, started as head of Metro Health in 2017, relocating from North Carolina, where she served as health department director for Orange County in the Durham-Chapel Hill area.

Among her daunting charges were to deal with San Antonio’s teen pregnancy rate and vast health inequities, both exacerbated by decades of poverty and economic segregation.

“It took us almost 100 years to get where we are,” Bridger said, referring to the redlining that divided the city along racial lines in the early 20th century. “It’s going to take some time to repair the damage and move beyond that.”

Even so, her bold moves at Metro Health brought immediate changes.

After arriving, Bridger launched a data-driven program to address childhood trauma, an early trigger for anything from school dropouts and addiction to chronic illness. Last year, she convinced council to create a new staff position to focus on the problem, and the city recently launched a first-of-its-kind program to certify workers to deal with childhood trauma.

Kathleen Fletcher, CEO of the nonprofit Voices for Children, said Bridger’s ability to draw on research and explain its relevance helped her build support. She’s witnessed Bridger use that approach to win over anyone from councilmembers to rank-and-file childcare workers.

“She’s able to bring data and research down to the level where it doesn’t sound overly academic or intimidating,” Fletcher said. “She can humanize the data.”

Bridger also helmed the city’s Tobacco 21 initiative which last year upped the legal age for purchasing tobacco to 21. San Antonio became the first Texas city to do so, and the legislature followed its lead this session, passing a bill to increase the age limit statewide.

Proactive Steps

Although Bridger’s excelled at tackling big-city issues, she credits her interest in public health to growing up on a family farm in rural Michigan. Keeping it functioning, she pointed out, involved taking proactive steps to ensure animals and crops stayed healthy.

Her first public-health job, which involved working with migrant farm workers, came not because she had specific experience in the arena but because she’d spent time abroad and could speak Spanish.

She leveraged that start into a 20-year career, during which she served as health director for three North Carolina counties. While at those posts, she helped reduce teen pregnancy and infant mortality rates while addressing poverty and access to medical care.

She and her husband Chuck — a nonprofit director — have two adult children.

‘Nothing Rocks Her’

Bridger’s new position with the City of San Antonio marks her first professional foray outside of public health. She now oversees not just her old department but Parks and Recreation, Human Services and the Office of Equity.

So far, Bridger seems to be hitting the mark. She’s drawn praise for opening the Migrant Resource Center and negotiating the terms that allow the city and partners such as the San Antonio Food Bank and Catholic Charities to keep it in operation.

“She knows how to pull things off,” said Gavin Rogers, associate pastor at Travis Park Church, another Migrant Resource Center partner. “Nothing rocks her.”

Bridger also sees an opportunity to bring the data analysis that was her hallmark at Metro Health to other departments. She aims to coordinate projects between the departments she oversees, sharing research and avoiding redundant studies.

“Even Parks and Rec, at its very heart, is about providing opportunities for people to improve their health,” she said. “It’s just an incredible opportunity to be able to say we’re bringing this public health perspective into the day-to-day management of the seventh largest city in the United States.”

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