Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
The Washington County Board of Health announced its next public health director last week, a 26-year-old Iowa graduate named Emily Houston, though by the time she takes the position on Nov. 29, she’ll do so under a new name: Emily Tokheim.
“I’m getting married here in a couple of weeks, and so (I’m) preparing for that on the personal side of my life, and just really excited to begin this position at the end of the month,” Houston said. “I do appreciate that they kind of kept that under wraps for a little bit. I’m totally fine with people knowing that, it’s part of my life, it’s who I am, but that’s the week-and-a-half time span that I was unavailable for this.”
While she has both undergraduate and Master’s degrees in public health from the University of Iowa, where she completed her education last spring, Houston said she hadn’t initially planned on the career path.
“When I came to the university as an undergraduate, I really had my heart set on being a physical therapist,” she said. “I was really interested in helping people, I really liked learning about health and helping people be their healthiest versions of themselves. Growing up in a small community, I had never had exposure to public health that I knew of.”
Once she found it through a gen-ed course, however, Houston was drawn to the field.
“I like learning about science, I really do, but when it came to chemistry, biology courses, in those my eyes kind of glazed over and I lost interest really quickly,” she said. “In public health, I loved that I could take what I learned and on my drive or walk home from class, I could see things that we had applied … that I had never thought about with public health.”
Houston said her decision to pursue local public health as a career came naturally.
“Helping a community in ways that they don’t have to even recognize, even though it’s great when people do recognize what public health is … being able to be somebody that impacts their life in a positive way, that’s very important to me,” she said. “I love being able to have a positive impact, I’m a very positive person, I like to be helpful in every way that I can.”
As for Washington County specifically, Houston said the 22,000-person community piqued her interest.
“It’s bigger than my home community and smaller than what I’ve worked with in Linn County Public Health, but I like that it’s a diverse community,” she said. “I really like getting to work with different populations and people from different backgrounds, I love learning about different people.”
Another major pull factor, however, was praise for the community from former Director Danielle Pettit-Majewski.
“She had made a Facebook post about how bittersweet it was to be moving on from Washington County, and supportive it was and the network she had created,” Houston said. “As somebody who was leaving this position to take another director position in another community, how highly she spoke of Washington County Public Health and Washington County as a whole … seeing how highly she spoke, that really stood out to me.”
As a newly minted graduate, Houston checks all the boxes in terms of qualifications, but has met skepticism from some, including Board of Health Member Jack Seward Jr., who has been frank about his preference for another candidate.
“My conscience tells me that there was a better candidate,” he said before the vote to confirm Houston as the Board of Health’s choice. “That, however, does not mean that I won’t do everything that I possibly can to make sure that it’s a success.”
Houston pushed back on those concerns.
“I’m not going to approach this lightly,” she said. “I know that this is a very big position, the health of 22,000 people, that’s not something to take lightly.”
Despite her lack of work experience, Houston said she was confident about her ability to get the job done.
“I know that there’s going to be a very big learning curve, but … I’m willing to learn,” she said. “I don’t expect to do this all on my own. I know that I have resources, I have a network of people that I can reach out to … I’m very excited to learn from the past about how others do it, but also apply my own skills and my own knowledge to succeed in this role.”
On top of her skills, Houston said her passion for the work would ensure her success.
“A position like this is the reason I got my master’s,” she said. “I know that I do have to prove myself to some people, I know that that’s going to be an uphill battle, but I’m not discouraged by that … My passion for helping people, my hard work, my drive, and my motivation to succeed in this role are what really are going to drive me to excel in this.”
Houston said she brought some attributes to the table that other candidates could not.
“Public health is evolving … we’ve seen that over the last couple of years, and I think bringing in somebody with a fresh perspective and a fresh education in public health is really important,” she said. “I’m sure that they had candidates with maybe more supervisory experience or whatever that may have been, but I think … I am decisive enough to get things done and to accomplish tasks, but I’m not so stuck in my own mindset and my own ways, and I’m willing to adapt and evolve to whatever is needed.”
As she takes the reins, Houston said she had lofty goals for the department in the long term, but didn’t plan to shake things up too much from the start.
“I don’t want to come in and overhaul anything right off the bat,” she said. “Public health has been very reactive, especially for the last couple years with COVID-19, with social inequities that we’ve been seeing. I’m really excited to get to a point where we can be proactive with health … that won’t be something that happens in my first month or two months in the position, but moving past the pandemic.”
Naturally, those administrative goals come with personal ones.
“Another goal for myself is becoming familiar and comfortable with the communities in Washington County Public Health,” she said. “I want to be somebody that (will) be an active member in these communities. This comes with building trust and building those relationships.”