Celebrating Community Health Leaders

Remarks from Risa Lavizzo-Mourey at the 20th Anniversary Celebration of Community Health Leaders.

    • December 4, 2013

Welcome, everyone.  

I am delighted to be with you today to honor and celebrate the achievements of our Community Health Leaders at our final annual meeting together. This year’s meeting is really special. In addition to recognizing our Leaders today, we are celebrating a milestone:  20 remarkable years of the Community Health Leaders Awards. 

Twenty years of shining the spotlight on individuals who saw something that needed improvement in their communities, and didn’t wait for somebody else to fix it. Who leaned in and accomplished what others considered impossible. Twenty years of applauding hometown innovation, whether the goal was to celebrate healthier environments, bring needed health resources to the underserved, diversify the local health care workforce, or establish a grassroots program—YOU made the difference.

It has been a great honor and privilege to recognize the profound impact leaders like you have had on improving the health of your communities. And of our entire nation.  

So please, give yourselves a well-deserved round of applause. 

There are so many people I want to thank for the success of the Community Health Leaders Awards.  

First, I want to recognize our National Program Director, Janice Ford Griffin, and the national program staff—both current and former. Your commitment and dedication to the Leaders has been invaluable.  

Thank you also to the members of our National Advisory Committee.  We are grateful to each of you for the wisdom and guidance you have provided over the years. And of course thank you to all of our Community Health Leaders—our bold and innovative change agents.   

Since 1993, 206 people from 47 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have received the Community Health Leaders Award for their creativity, innovation, and commitment to improving health in their communities. We have been proud to recognize and support your work. And you are all, in a word, extraordinary. 

Because of your passion, your creativity, and your hard work, communities across the country are healthier. Because of you, our safety nets are stronger. Because of you, many of those with the greatest needs have better opportunities to live longer and healthier lives. Your stories and accomplishments are as remarkable as they are inspiring. 

You faced problems straight on. And figured out a way to change the world for the better. Either on your own, or by following in the footsteps of a role model. 

Some of you are medical professionals—nurses, physicians, dentists, pharmacists—who confronted a conspicuous failing in the system and devised a ground-level solution. Others of you are lawyers and judges, members of the clergy, school officials, and activists and advocates who saw a need.

The most important thing you all share is a strong passion for social justice. And that you developed the skills necessary to get things accomplished. Skills like networking, consensus-building, problem-solving, and organizing. And, of course, perseverance—lots of it. 

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we know the value of perseverance.  We’ve been in the business of making positive change for over 40 years. And, like you, we’re not slowing down yet!  

Because of your diverse backgrounds and areas of interest, the accomplishments you’ve made have helped so many different communities. 

In West Park, Florida, for example, Andrea Ivory launched a breast cancer education awareness program that has empowered uninsured women in her community to not only confront breast cancer, but defeat it.

Charlene Thomas is living proof of Andrea’s impact.  Although Charlene was uninsured, she paid for a screening mammogram out of her own pocket.  But when she needed a follow-up, she kept putting it off because she couldn’t afford it. Then a volunteer from the Florida Breast Health Initiative reached out to her and Charlene got the follow-up mammogram she needed for free. This led to a cancer diagnosis and ultimately a mastectomy. Today, Charlene is cancer-free and doing well—thanks to the Florida Breast Health Initiative, the program that Andrea started.

Andrea’s not a doctor or a nurse or any kind of health professional. She’s a realtor. She’s also a breast cancer survivor who wanted to help other women survive breast cancer. Andrea and her army of volunteers are dedicated to educating women about breast cancer and helping them get screening.  Their work illustrates the importance of outreach, prevention, and mentoring in enabling whole communities to take better care of themselves.

I know that all of you have similar stories.

You have all honored your communities with your time, your compassion, and your unwavering commitment to their unmet needs.

You have taught us not to fear the future, but to embrace its potential.

And over the years, you have demonstrated that health happens in communities – where people live, learn, work, and play.  

In fact, you are the living proof that some of the most innovative and most practical solutions for improving health aren‘t found in hospitals and doctors’ offices. But in our homes. In our neighborhoods. In our schools, and in our workplaces.

At the Foundation, we have embraced a vision of a national culture of health. A culture in which everyone—regardless of where they live, their race or ethnicity, or how poor or wealthy they may be—has the opportunity to lead a healthy life.  

In this culture of health, being and staying healthy will be an esteemed social value. Business, government, individuals and organizations will work together to promote good health. And the health of communities—of our entire population—will guide public and private decision-making. Ultimately, our vision is of a society where healthy choices are the easy choices for every family. Where every school, every employer, every neighborhood and every community is part of an American culture of health. 

We are in the midst of determining how we can best realize this vision. But we can’t do it alone. We need your help. One way you can get started is by joining the RWJF Leadership Network on LinkedIn, a new platform we’re launching later this month. You’ll hear more about the Network later today, but, just briefly, the Network will provide an opportunity for all of the people who are professionally connected to the Foundation to gather virtually to discuss the day’s issues, share news and interact with our staff and with one another. You will receive your invitation to join the Network in the next week or so—and, just so you know—as Community Health Leaders, you are among the very first groups to be invited!

In a culture of health, keeping people and communities healthy must include improving such things as education, transportation, employment, and housing. And for that reason, we are reaching out to leaders across society—leaders in government, the nonprofit sector, business, and philanthropy. And we are asking them to work together in new, and sometimes unconventional partnerships, to improve America’s health. 

You have been instrumental in helping us build this culture of health. And I hope that each of you, in your own way, will continue to work hard to help make the vision a reality.   

It’s not going to be easy. There is a lot to do. And that’s why it is so very important for us to stay connected.  

Programs don’t last forever: there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.  But even though Community Health Leaders as a program is ending, your work, your accomplishments, and your impacts continue. And so does our connection with you.  

You have all shown what true leadership is on a day-to-day basis. And your drive and courage has created new paths for others to follow. I want to thank you for that. And for believing in the best in all of us. 

There is a proverb from Malawi that says:  “A great leader is an ordinary person with extraordinary wisdom.”  You, our Community Health Leaders, are the embodiment of that saying.  So many people in communities across the country have benefitted from your extraordinary wisdom and leadership.

I can’t tell you how proud I am of each and every one of you. 

Thank you for demonstrating the best that the Foundation, and indeed our country, has to offer. It has been an honor and a privilege to work with you. This is your day. This is your time to celebrate.  Enjoy, and thank you.