Sheila Savannah, Director
“Our work at Prevention Institute recognizes that historical trauma and the systematic nature of detrimental policies and practices generate disparities, at an individual and community level, with a disproportionate impact on people of color and communities that experience persistent disinvestment. More importantly, our work is about identifying champions and equipping them to change their environments to those of equitable opportunity.”
Sheila Savannah has over thirty years of experience in multisector collaboration and youth/family engagement to address wellness, safety, and equity. She is widely recognized for her contributions in the areas of health equity, mental health, capacity building, and therapeutic programming with children, adolescents, families, and communities. Sheila serves on the FRIENDS National Advisory Council on Community-based Child Abuse Prevention and previously served as an expert advisor for several bodies including the Center for Health Care Strategies Committee on Consumer Advancement, Harris County Regional Advisory Council on Medicaid Managed Care, and the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Multicultural Advisory Committee. In 2009, she was a children’s mental health panelist for Vice President Al Gore’s Conference on Families and Health, and in 2014 she was a CDC Grand Rounds Panelist on Preventing Youth Violence.
“My mother was an artist, and my father was a research chemist, so I’ve always approached things through discovery and expression. In my work with mental health and substance abuse, a lot of what I did leveraged creative arts as part of catalytic healing and community building.”
Sheila joined the Prevention Institute as a director in 2015, where her work has focused on building local assets for multisector systems transformation. Based in Houston, Sheila provides leadership on health equity, mental health and wellbeing, and violence prevention. In her leadership role on mental health, she focuses on its intersection with community resilience and the community determinants of health. Her projects take a public health approach to mental wellbeing and improving community environments–social connection, the built environment, and equitable opportunity—and aim to prevent and/or address mental health problems, trauma, substance misuse, and violence.
Sheila leads the Movember Foundation-funded Making Connections for Mental Health and Wellbeing initiative, which works in diverse settings across the United States to identify and amplify community approaches to improve mental wellbeing outcomes for boys and men–with projects advancing solutions for boys and men of color and service members and veterans–all taking a community-driven, primary-prevention approach.
As an African-American storyteller and writer, Sheila has always been passionate about finding creative ways to promote health and healing within contexts of cultural, ethnic, and economic diversity. From 1990 to 1993, she was director of Child & Adolescent Service at Riverside General Hospital, leading The Children’s Renaissance Center and providing curriculum-based substance abuse prevention training and support for children, youth, and agencies serving youth. In 1993, she took up the role of local project manager for the Annie E. Casey Mental Health Initiative for Urban Children, responsible for community planning, service coordination, and systems reform to reduce out-of-home placements. This project grew into a local nonprofit organization where, from 1996 to 2005, as executive director for People in Partnership, Houston, Sheila oversaw the delivery of a range of community-designed programs to strengthen support for youth and families.
Between 2004 and 2006, Sheila served as director of community initiatives for Houston City Council District D. In 2006, she was appointed division manager in the Division of Aging, Chronic Disease, and Injury Prevention and the Office for Adolescent Health and Injury Prevention for the City of Houston Department of Health and Human Services. She facilitated the alignment of strategic partnerships, leveraging multi-agency resources for system redesign, and workforce development within the planning, chronic disease, and injury prevention unit. In this capacity, she also led the Office of Adolescent Health and Injury Prevention, including Houston's CDC-funded violence prevention initiative, where she fostered partnerships with schools, police, public works, and other city departments to work alongside community and faith organizations to implement evidence-based programs in over ten neighborhood sites aligned with Houston's summer jobs program.
Sheila is an experienced trainer and presenter at conferences and expert meetings, including as a frequent presenter at the American Public Health Association (APHA) and the College of Behavioral Health Leadership. In 2012, she co-authored an article on the need for mental health and emotional support in an inner-city, African-American community, which received the APHA Betty J. Cleckley Minority Issues Research Award.
Sheila holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas, Austin, and an MA in behavioral sciences with concurrent completion of training in expressive arts therapies from the University of Houston, Clear Lake.