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Rafielle Freeman: ‘Real leadership doesn’t require a title’

In a nearly 25-year career at BlueCross, Rafielle Freeman, director of quality improvement for BlueCare Tennessee, has consistently helped people become healthier and more financially secure through access to high-quality, affordable health care.

“I love giving back to the community, and my job allows me to do that,” she says. “As a company, BlueCross supports the right things and aligns with my values.”

Quality improvement at BlueCare ensures our members have the best experience with our programs, initiatives and overall health services. It’s been a natural fit for Rafielle, a Memphis native who was raised with a focus on community, hard work and education. 

She grew up surrounded by strong women from rural Mississippi — her mother, grandmother, aunts and cousins. Rafielle’s fondest childhood memories involve summers with her grandparents in Mississippi — visits where reading was strongly encouraged, and during which she’d lose herself in books.

“My grandmother was born in 1904, and at that time, many African-Americans were taught in churches and got secondhand books,” she says. “Higher education was uncommon back then, yet I had great-grandparents who met at Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss., in the late 1800s. That focus on education was passed to my grandparents, who worked incredibly hard and were always putting books in front of me.”

As a result of their struggles growing up during the Great Depression, Rafielle’s grandparents also prepared her for a better future by teaching her about land ownership, saving and investing.

“You must have a means of survival,” she says. “Thanks to those lessons, I knew that planning, education and hard work would lead to self-sustainability.”

While that kind of security was important, Rafielle also recognized the importance of giving back from an early age. Coming from a military family — her father served in Vietnam — she learned the value of structure and helping those in need. Seeing poverty and witnessing the hardships of those less fortunate inspired her to help make a difference for others.

A part of something bigger

Rafielle’s commitment to community took root during her college education. She enrolled at the University of Tennessee – Martin and joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. The sorority was a way for Rafielle to channel her passion for helping others and work with like-minded women, all while developing leadership and professional skills.

“Connecting with women gives you a sense of empowerment and encouragement,” Rafielle says. “You get to see how multifaceted women are and learn how to be more compassionate.”

As a sorority member, she helped develop programs and events for diabetes and cancer awareness, donation drives, and community outreach in Martin. Today, Rafielle sees similarities between her work with Alpha Kappa Alpha and BlueCare. Both promote health and wellness initiatives while serving and bringing awareness to communities.

 In 1993, graduated from UT – Martin with a nursing degree. She accepted a position at a Chattanooga hospital on the surgical floor. While grateful for the opportunity, she noticed few other minorities in nursing or leadership positions.

“The lack of diversity within the workforce did not align with my beliefs,” Rafielle says. “I believe if something’s not going right, I have control over myself and the actions I take. So, I can either try to change it, or move on — but that’s on me.”

Rafielle’s career aspirations lined up with the creation of the TennCare program in 1994. As Tennessee’s Medicaid program, TennCare provides health care resources to low-income, at-risk populations including pregnant women, parents or caretakers whose child is a minor, children, seniors, and those with a disability. 

As BlueCross embarked on its partnership with TennCare, Rafielle joined the company as a nurse on the quality improvement team. With her health care background, she contributed to initiatives, events, strategies and research to help them progress the department as a behind-the-scenes resource for members.

“Quality improvement is like having a recipe on how to do business, protect members, and make sure their long-term health needs are met,” Rafielle says. “It ensures structures and processes that lead to meaningful outcomes are in place.”

Team collaboration and influence

Rafielle considers serving underrepresented communities her career calling — a calling that led to her becoming director of quality improvement in 2012. For Rafielle, leadership starts with patience and taking time to learn about hardships our members face. 

“You have to be able to talk to people in a natural way,” she says. “Seeing people want to do better, get better and seek out information helped me understand the value of BlueCare and all we do. When I can educate someone in a way that shows them their best path toward a healthier life, I think we all feel better.”

Finding paths forward means ensuring that every voice is heard.

“My leadership style is very collaborative, and I make sure to listen to others,” she adds. “A leader must be someone you can rely on and trust when things aren’t going well. But leaders sometimes need someone to pick them up and offer encouragement. That’s what the sorority did for me while I was in college, and that’s what my colleagues do for me today.”

Leading with purpose and eliminating fear

Rafielle encourages other leaders to speak up, speak out, be thoughtful and be present.  She believes everyone should share their ideas and contribute to their team’s growth.

“Everything is right at your fingertips — read everything,” she says. “I don’t care who you are or what your position is. If you have an idea or a thought, open your mouth and share it. Lots of people are thinkers. But so many people just sit back just waiting for an opportunity, and they never say a word.”

“Leadership has nothing to do with position; it has to do with characteristics, accomplishments and how you’re able to influence and work with others to a certain specific goal.”

She recommends leaders look outside of their comfort zone and seek out people who share different perspectives , and act as a mentor to nurture those perspectives.

The importance of family and self-care

For Rafielle, serving members and practicing self-care aren’t mutually exclusive. Her health is a priority, and she enjoys Zumba classes and daily neighborhood walks. She recently met a weight-loss goal of 100 pounds.

“At one point I was 265 pounds, and my health, my career and my family were suffering,” she says. “My doctor told me I was prediabetic. A cardiologist said to me, ‘You look lazy. I’ll need a new program to watch your performance.’”

For Rafielle, who’d worked hard all her life, those words stung.

“But his words had the desired effect,” she admits. “I decided at that point, never again would I put things before my family and my health. I decided to take time out to exercise and to get my mind straight. I haven’t looked back since.”

Rafielle with her husband Yancy

Rafielle also found that BlueCross was a partner in her efforts to live a healthier life.

“BlueCross understands its employees are its most valuable asset, and they are dedicated to being flexible and understanding our needs,” she says. “I love that they promote well-being.”

Rafielle spends most of her free time with her husband Yancy, son Yancy Jr. and daughter Camille. In her continuing efforts to give back to the community, she’s involved with the Chattanooga chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha and serves on a graduate advisor council at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Rafielle with her daughter Camille and son Yancy Jr.

“I love working with undergraduate women,” Rafielle says. “They are so eager and intelligent, it astonishes me. My hope is that as a mentor I can help them excel academically and professionally.”

That’s yet another example of Rafielle’s tendency to shift the focus from herself to those in need.

“Having structure and a meaningful outcome are very important to me,” she says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better career.”

About Kenyel Jetton, Corporate Communications Intern

A photo of the authorKenyel is a Nashville native and a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. As a corporate communications intern at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, she assists with internal communications and content creation.

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