Oct 30 2012
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Health Happens Here: Q&A with Robert Ross, President of The California Endowment

file Robert Ross, The California Endowment

"Black men today are more likely to receive a GED in prison than graduate from college. One in three black men, and one in six Latino men, are projected to go to prison in their lifetimes.

There is new hope--Sacramento is now responding to this crisis. This time last year, California Assemblymember Sandré Swanson created a special committee of legislators whose sole charge is to improve the life chances of these young men. The Select Committee on Boys and Men of Color spent the past year traveling the state hearing from black and brown men--adolescents, men who have "made it" and others who've turned their lives around. The Committee is in the process of presenting their findings and practical solutions.

For me, this is personal. In the 1960s, as a young boy growing up in a South Bronx housing project, I saw graffiti, shattered glass, broken elevators, zip guns and welfare. I didn't need a medical degree then to know that the place was unhealthy. And I didn't need a doctorate to understand that black and brown people were at the short end of the fairness and opportunity stick. My family was living it.

I understand now that successful, thriving young people aren't born. They're nurtured. The checklist to grow up includes caring adults, safe places to play, good schools and real job opportunities." – Robert K. Ross, President and CEO of The California Endowment

Robert K. Ross, MD, President and CEO of The California Endowment, recently returned from a three-month study leave to better understand the challenges and opportunities facing boys and young men of color across California and the country.

Dr. Ross is at the American Public Health Association gathering this week to discuss The Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative and the foundation’s work to advance the health and well being of our young people.

NewPublicHealth: What are the goals of The California Endowment’s work with boys and young men of color?

Dr. Robert Ross: Many young people in California live in communities with concentrated poverty, under-resourced schools and unsafe streets. They are more likely to experience poor health, suffer from unemployment and lead shorter lives. This is especially true of young men of color—African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans.

Health Happens Here

If you're lucky enough to move to a neighborhood with a grocery store, safe parks and good schools, your health will improve. In fact, tell me your zip code and I’ll tell you how long you’ll live. For example, residents in Marin County have among the highest life expectancy in the nation while residents of Imperial County have close to the lowest. Not every family can pack up and move. Nor should they. Instead, we must create opportunities for young people where they live—where health and success happens.

NPH: Why focus on boys and young men of color in particular? Don’t all Californians require healthier communities?

Dr. Robert Ross: Teenage boys, regardless of race and ethnicity, are more likely than girls to take risks as they shape their masculinity and exert independence. However, youthful mistakes made by young men of color are sometimes judged more severely and result in harsher punishment.

This year, we were surprised to learn that California suspends more than 400,000 students annually. The majority of infractions are not related to weapons or drugs. The U.S. Department of Education found that young men of color are suspended at disproportionately higher rates. Harsh school discipline is often the first step that pushes young men out of school and into the juvenile justice system, and eventually prison. Our state spends nearly five times more of its budget on inmates than K-12 students. We’ve got it backwards.

As a fast-growing segment of California’s population, young people of color have a vital role to play in building a prosperous future for California. Boys and young men of color can make our neighborhoods safer and stronger. We need them to work hard, innovate and keep California and our nation competitive in the global economy — if we invest in them.

NPH: We’ve seen the Health Happens Here signs all over the conference [see photo above]. What is that campaign? How does your focus on boys and young men of color fit into this broader campaign strategy?

Dr. Robert Ross: Your zip code shouldn't determine how long you live, but it does. We know where you live matters, and it matters a lot. The Health Happens Here campaign challenges us to think about health beyond doctor’s visits and diets. And to inspire us all to take action to make health happen where we live, learn and play.

The good news is that efforts are taking shape to address these interlinking issues. For example, school districts large and small, urban and rural, have recognized we need a new direction to make health happen in schools. They’re showing teachers how to prevent problems before they start. And when there is misbehavior, they’re holding students accountable and helping them learn from their mistakes—all while keeping them in schools. Students stay on track for graduation, and a healthy and productive life.

And public-private partnerships are launching to help boys and young men of color thrive. Last year, George Soros and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a $127 million effort in New York to support young men of color. The California Endowment has joined a new statewide coalition—the Alliance for Boys and Young Men of Color. The Alliance includes young people, community organizations and officials in education, public health and law enforcement.

Research shows that, regardless of one’s race or ethnicity, adult health status improves as educational attainment increases. Which is why keeping kids in school and out of the juvenile justice system can help us unlock the potential of our young people, putting them on the path to health and success.

In California, elected leaders are already advancing policies that serve our young people. Seven bills promoting a return to common sense school discipline were passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor this fall.

We cannot stop here. We must scale up our investments in boys and young men of color, expanding innovative approaches and identifying new ones. If we don’t, we risk losing a generation of young people who can contribute greatly to our society. We’ll all pay a steep price for that.

Policy-makers have made smart choices before, helping California become a global leader in the 20th century. The time has come again to make tough decisions that will create a better future for all Californians—to make health happen here.

Tags: APHA, Community Health, Healthy communities, Partnerships, Public Health , Public health, Social determinants of health, Vulnerable Populations