Renewing People, Restoring Communities in Inner City Memphis

In 1998, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation named the Rev. Kenneth Robinson, M.D., a Community Health Leader, in recognition of his work to enhance the health - body, mind and spirit - of underserved people and communities.

    • March 9, 2009

The Problem: Plagued by substance abuse, violence and poor health, young people in South Memphis had little hope for a productive future. They needed health care that focused on body, mind and spirit.

Grantee Background: Rev. Kenneth Robinson, MD, attended one of Nashville’s first integrated schools, and though the young African-American student returned to segregated schools after seventh grade, his early exposure to diversity influenced his entire life.

Sickly with asthma as a child, Robinson spent much time at the local “black hospital” where he looked at African-American pediatricians as role models. Raised on the values of of education, faith and giving back to the community, he became friends with one of the doctors’ children, a boy with Down's Syndrome, and subsequently helped to found the National Youth Association for Retarded Children—at age 14. In 1971, as a freshman at Harvard University, he was appointed to President Nixon's Commission on Mental Retardation—the youngest appointee to a presidential-level commission ever.

That same year, he met John Bryant, a young Cambridge pastor who impressed him greatly—and not just for his message of personal salvation. “I understood for the first time what social ministry and the social gospel meant: functional, practical investment in the lives of individuals, families and the community,” says Robinson. In 1976, during Robinson’s first year at Harvard Medical School, the pastor left his mark again. “Following a sermon, he invited to the altar all those who were struggling with the calling to preach—among whom I most emphatically was ,” Robinson recalls. “But I found myself at that altar, responding to a calling that I really did not know was upon my life.”

His Harvard professors were not thrilled at his calling—they thought it too hard to succeed in both fields. Yet Robinson finished his residency in internal medicine at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital while becoming ordained as Itinerant Elder within the A.M.E. Church. Ironically, it was during his residency that Robinson came to appreciate the spiritual basis to health as he saw the power of 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to help relieve addiction. “I found in AA a wonderful model of that bridge between faith and health,” he says.

In 1982, Robinson returned to Nashville with his wife and twin babies, to earn his master's degree in divinity while teaching at Vanderbilt's School of Medicine. As a practitioner and teacher, he talked often of the clinical relevance of the patient's faith. “Not a lot of people were talking about this back in the early 1980s,” he remembers.

In 1983, Robinson was appointed to his first church, St. Peter A.M.E., where he partnered with area medical schools to develop ASK (Alcohol Screening and Knowledge), a program that helped educate African-American clergy in the prevention of substance abuse, so they could spot at-risk adults and adolescents in their congregations.

At his next church, Payne Chapel, Robinson enlisted the city and the schools to help create LifePower, a program aimed at academic enhancement and pregnancy prevention. He also instituted On Target, in which at-risk teens produced anti-smoking and anti-drinking media messages for their peers. "This was a holistic, wrap-around program teaching them literacy, self-expression, substance abuse prevention and use of the media,” Robinson says. “It helped us relate to them—spirit, soul and body.”

By early 1991, Robinson was so involved in ministry that he gave up practicing medicine. Five months later, he was transferred to St. Andrew A.M.E. Church in Memphis, which had an active congregation of almost 300 people. Robinson’s first and most ambitious project there was the state-funded Trimasters program, which taught at-risk 10- to 13-year-old African-American youths how to have healthier bodies, minds and spirits. Other programs followed, transforming St. Andrew into Robinson’s vision of a comprehensive, holistic, community-dedicated ministry.

Largely due to his advocacy efforts encouraging African-American students to pursue medicine, and the part-time role he proposed and assumed as an assistant dean focused on this agenda, African-American enrollment at the University of Tennessee's College of Medicine tripled over the years.

In 1998, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation named Robinson a , in recognition of his work to enhance the health—body, mind and spirit—of underserved people and communities.

Results: With the $100,000 RWJF award, Robinson bought a bus for Trimasters, helped underwrite the program until it secured permanent support, and purchased eight acres of land near the church for affordable rental housing. The award won him the “bully pulpit” before the media, and attention followed: “It helped other funding partners find me,” he says. “People started knocking.”

In 2003, Robinson’s career took yet another turn when he was appointed state Commissioner of Health—the first African American in the position—thanks to his work centering public health around community health. “The model RWJF had originally seen inspired the governor to see if I could bring to his cabinet a more holistic approach to public health,” Robinson recalls. Determined to continue his ministry at St. Andrew, Robinson commuted to and from Memphis every weekend of his four-year tenure in Nashville.

Convinced that Tennessee’s consistent position at the bottom of state health rankings was due to the poor health status of minorities and racial ethnic groups, he worked to reverse the inequities. The issues he targeted—including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and infant mortality—were problems statewide. “But they all had demonstrable statistical disparities in African American communities,” Robinson says.

Robinson spearheaded a massive expansion of safety net primary care services into 48 county health departments, with funding to some 60 faith- and community-based clinics serving uninsured adults. “I got the state level public health service to return to its roots of working closely with community-based organizations,” he explains.

In 2007, Robinson returned full-time to St. Andrew, which has grown into a 1600-member church and an enterprise providing high quality child care, a charter elementary school, and over 100 units of affordable housing to its community. He is now applying his energy to the South Memphis Renaissance Initiative—another public-private venture—to create a healthy community with senior housing, commercial development, public safety and access to health services. But that’s just for starters, for, as Robinson says, “My focus has turned not just to Memphis but to Shelby County—where there are still huge racial and ethnic health disparities—to try to turn the tide of those major public health problems.” More than ever, he says, “I’m offering leadership, advice and consultation to a broad variety of health-related entities that share my call to improve the health of his community—to heal the land.”

RWJF Perspective: Since 1993, RWJF has recognized unsung and inspiring individuals who work in their communities—often among the most disenfranchised populations—to address some of the nation's most intractable health care problems. Formal recognition by the Foundation of these and their programs often launches them to greater levels of influence and extends their reach to serve more vulnerable populations.

RWJF provides a financial award to 10 individuals and their organizations each year, and connects the with one another so they can build their programs upon the wisdom and experience of their peers and previous award winners.

Community Health Leaders are characterized by three specific traits—they are courageous, they are creative and they are committed,” says the National Program Director Janice Ford Griffin. “The Foundation recognizes the tremendous resource of experiences among the Leaders and we look forward to mining that resource as we consider future initiatives.”

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