Jimmy Chen, Camara Phyllis Jones receive inaugural President’s Award for the Advancement of the Common Good
Stanford alumni Jimmy Chen and Camara Phyllis Jones are the inaugural recipients of the President’s Award for the Advancement of the Common Good, which honors alumni who have positively and sustainably changed the trajectory of people’s lives in their communities and around the world.
Stanford alumni Jimmy Chen, BS ’10, a social entrepreneur using technology to improve the lives of low-income Americans, and Camara Phyllis Jones, MD ’81, an epidemiologist helping to address racism and inequity in public health, will receive the university’s inaugural President’s Award for the Advancement of the Common Good.
In 2021, Stanford created the university award to honor alumni who have positively and sustainably changed the trajectory of people’s lives in their communities and around the world.
“Jimmy and Camara are deeply deserving recipients of this inaugural award – they are action-oriented, dedicated to making positive change, and forging new paths that promise to have impact far beyond their chosen fields,” said President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “They exemplify Stanford’s values of public service and civic engagement, and they represent the many Stanford alumni who are working to make positive change in their communities and the world. I’m excited to honor them at Commencement.”
The new award is also intended to highlight individuals who demonstrate a commitment to learning, social responsibility, and ethical and effective service. This dedication may be through addressing current social and environmental issues, contributing to an engaged citizenry, strengthening democratic values and civic responsibility, and/or contributing to the greater good of society.
In addition to assessing nominees’ purpose, action, and impact, the award’s selection committee recognizes individuals who represent the Haas Center for Public Service’s varied Pathways of Public Service and Civic Engagement and embody the university’s Principles of Ethical and Effective Service.
Chen, founder and CEO of Propel, created an anti-poverty software company that has measurably improved the lives of low-income Americans and shown the scale and impact of social entrepreneurship. Chen’s creative cross-sector approach impacts millions daily as he works alongside government bureaucracy, believing in the roles all sectors can play in reducing poverty.
Chen’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from China, and while he had a happy childhood, money was always tight, he said. He attended Stanford primarily on a financial need-based scholarship.
This experience helped shape Chen’s work at Propel as the company focuses on financial services for low-income families through the free app Providers, which allows people to track food stamp balances, government benefits, and more.
“A lot of people who hold the keys in technology don’t have a personal familiarity with the types of challenges that a lot of low-income families across this country face,” he said. “To me, that is both the impact as well as the business opportunity for what we are doing. We believe that the technology that we hold in our phones can be a real facilitator for families in financial need to materially improve their day-to-day lives.”
Chen, of New York City, also created a program partnering with GiveDirectly to distribute $1,000 in no-strings-attached cash grants to Propel users.
“A lot of the things that I learned at Stanford – from a technical side as well as from the people and from a philosophical side – have really informed a lot of what I’ve done in my career over the past 12 years,” he said. “And so, being a relatively recent alum, it definitely feels a bit surreal and it’s a huge honor to be recognized in this way.”
Chen’s nominators describe him as a compassionate, dedicated, conscientious, and talented person.
“It is hard to believe Jimmy is just 11 years out of Stanford undergrad,” a nominator wrote. “He is a man of action and impact. Dedicated to the purpose of improving the lives of low-income Americans, he has engaged the private sector, the public sector, the nonprofit sector, and the philanthropic sector to improve people’s lives materially and sustainably. He is a breakthrough social impact leader and, through his life’s work, is unquestionably changing the trajectory of people’s lives for the better. He is also forging the path for others to follow through active engagement in like-minded communities.”
Chen has “exemplified the qualities of grit, determination and caring while leading Propel from a concept to becoming a service that is critically important daily to millions of low-income Americans,” another nominator wrote.
Chen said that justice is a core value that guides his work. “It feels like a moral obligation to take the resources we have and to position them to be valuable to people who are in need,” he added.
Chen serves as a board member at Share our Strength and as vice chair of technology and policy for the eGovernments Payments Council.
Camara Phyllis Jones
Jones, a family physician and epidemiologist in Atlanta, Georgia, has conducted groundbreaking research and advocacy that have changed the national conversation on racism and health.
Her tenacious commitment was a catalyst resulting in most U.S. states and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) formally declaring racism as a public health crisis. This designation has helped direct resources toward addressing systemic racism and health inequities.
“People need to understand that racism exists, racism is a system, racism saps the strength of the whole society, and we can act to dismantle racism,” Jones said. She defines racism as a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks – so-called “race” – that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities, unfairly advantages other individuals and communities, and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.
“Recognizing how racism squanders so much of our nation’s genius, divides us from one another, and even divides some from their own interests, anti-racism is absolutely for the common good,” Jones continued.
Jones said she was surprised and felt valued to receive the award for her decades of work on issues of “race,” racism, and anti-racism.
“I feel grateful. I feel honored,” she said. “And I am happy because the award is a very public affirmation of the importance of naming, measuring, and addressing the impacts of racism on the health and wellbeing of our nation and the world.”
Racism is foundational in the history of the United States, yet many people are in staunch denial of its continued existence and profoundly negative impacts on the health and well-being of the nation, Jones said. This racism denial is extremely seductive, she added.
Jones has “demonstrated profound empathy, tireless dedication, and extraordinary leadership in her lifetime of research and advocacy,” according to a nominator. These qualities were on full display as COVID-19 exacerbated health disparities, the nominator continued, as Jones asked why “race” is considered a social determinant of health and not “racism” when the latter causes harm.
“Her guidance on racism as a social determinant has quickly taken hold and broadened the lens through which clinicians and public health officials address the health of their communities,” a nominator wrote.
Often using allegory, Jones is skilled at taking complex issues like institutionalized racism that are otherwise difficult for many Americans to understand or discuss and illustrating them with simple, memorable images to facilitate open discussion and real progress.
“Anti-racism is absolutely for the common good.”
—Camara Phyllis Jones, ’81
“In ways big and small, she advocates every day for systemic change to address the impact of racism and build a healthier future for all,” according to her nomination.
Jones serves as the 2021-2022 presidential chair at the University of California, San Francisco. She is also an adjunct professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and a senior fellow and adjunct associate professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine.
Jones is a past president of the American Public Health Association, taught for six years as an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, and served for 14 years as a medical officer at the CDC. She recently completed her role as a 2021 Presidential Visiting Fellow at the Yale School of Medicine and as the 2019-2020 Evelyn Green Davis Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
Jones was also just elected to the 2022 Class of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and beginning in July, will be a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at King’s College London.
Jones warns that anti-racism is not a short-term endeavor and encourages others to engage in a sustained national campaign against racism. “Collective action informs us, inspires us, propels us, and protects us,” Jones said. “Collective action is power.”
The Office of the President partnered with the Haas Center for Public Service and the Stanford Alumni Association to create the new award. Stanford invites the university community to nominate living alumni, from recent graduates to those with established careers in public service.
A committee of alumni, faculty, and staff reached a strong consensus for each of the inaugural award winners.
The award joins other university awards conferred during Commencement honoring faculty students and staff, including the Kenneth M. Cuthbertson Award for Exceptional Service, the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Awards for Exceptional Contributions to Undergraduate Education, and the Walter J. Gores Faculty Awards for Excellence in Teaching.