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We Do Better When We Do for Others

Apr 14, 2014, 3:15 AM, Posted by Jody L. Struve

Jody’s son mashing it up at MakerFaire NYC Jody’s son mashing it up at MakerFaire NYC

This morning, I figured out how to save the planet. That’s the power of Twitter, friends. (Or that’s the power of Twitter when you’re bleary-eyed at 5:10 a.m., and meant to hit the Weather app to find out if your kids’ school might close, but instead you see a tweet that the United Nations has concluded global warming is indeed our fault, next to a tweet about food trucks, next to one about ...)

Twitter allows you to take in lots of disparate information at odd hours, and that can result in ... odd ideas.

In a flash, I saw an opportunity to solve two problems with one solution—a mash-up, if you will. By 5:15 a.m., still half asleep, looking at my smartphone, it became clear to me that the way to save the planet was to create “energy parks” that generate power through peoples’ physical activity, addressing obesity and climate change in one fell swoop.

Stay with me here.

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"It's Good to Know the Red Cross is There"

Apr 11, 2014, 5:06 PM, Posted by Jeff Meade

Northern New Jersey American Red Cross volunteers Hart Coven and Bob Hassmiller Northern New Jersey American Red Cross volunteers Hart Coven and Bob Hassmiller (photo by Jeff Meade)

The emergency response vehicle (ERV) fielded by the American Red Cross of Northern New Jersey is all gleaming white with shining chrome, flashing lights, diesel engine chugging away, the distinctive Red Cross logo emblazoned on its sides, larger than life.

The truck itself is about the size of a small delivery van, but even with a pair of comfortable padded seats, the inside looks roomy. But don't be fooled. Each of the red plastic insulated crates stacked like Lego bricks up toward the front of the truck can contain 50 hot meals. That’s a lot of mac and cheese. Up to 350 meals in all on a really busy night. There's enough coffee and juice to revive and hydrate exhausted firefighters for hours. Volunteers can give out a good many compact little "comfort kits," containing toiletries and other day-to-day necessities.

And of course, there are blankets—the big, warm white ones, also bearing the Red Cross symbol. The kind you see on local TV news, draped around the shoulders of folks driven from their  apartment complex by an overnight multi-alarm blaze.

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Why Empathy is Essential to a Culture of Health

Apr 11, 2014, 11:34 AM, Posted by Tara Oakman

Peace activist Zak Ebrahim speaks at TED 2014

Everyone knows it is hard to get 2-year-olds to do anything on a schedule. They want to do everything their way, on their own time. As you can imagine, trying to get my twins out the door each morning—let alone take a bath or eat a meal, can be quite a challenge. After trying a number of different parenting methods, I have discovered that the one way I can usually motivate them is to talk about feelings, and get them to recognize how their actions affect their sibling. Just yesterday, the only way I could get my son out of the bath was by telling him that his sister was sad and lonely waiting for him. And then, and only then, did he move.

Building empathy has been a critical strategy in my household of late—not only because it helps motivate them, but also because it is an important part of their social development. Lately I have been thinking about empathy on a larger scale, beyond my household, and how critical it is to building a Culture of Health.

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Making a Collective Impact in the Lives of Young Men of Color

Apr 2, 2014, 9:15 AM, Posted by Maisha Simmons

Hispanic, Iraqi and African American male students

On a bone-chilling cold day in Chicago last fall, I went on a site visit for a pending grantee. The grantee's office was warm and cozy, tucked away in a neighborhood with a bustling corridor of small businesses that sold a variety of ethnic foods and baked goods. The office walls told the stories of the neighborhood through brightly colored murals depicting loving families and happy children, on a backdrop of a beautiful Chicago landscape.

During this site visit I met a young man named Jose who captivated the room with his story. Jose loved art, even though his school had no art program. Art was the one way that he could express his love, fear, joy and pain. The art poured out of him—on his notebooks and books, and eventually on the walls and fences of his community. Luckily, a relative recognized Jose’s talent and found a community art program where he could learn his craft and express himself on canvases and murals instead of on buildings and public property.

A few months later, Jose was called into his principal’s office and threatened with suspension. Teachers and staff suspected that Jose was to blame for recent vandalism on school property. Shocked and nervous, Jose tried to explain that his art program had given him an outlet and that he no longer drew on desks or walls. But he had no proof and was suspended.

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Big East Leads Going into March Madness

Mar 26, 2014, 8:57 AM, Posted by Katherine Hempstead

Because every state has approached health reform differently, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) provides us with a unique opportunity to observe federalism in action. We now have 51 unique environments in which to assess the implementation of health reform.

Given the magnitude of the policy intervention, this variation provokes great interest in understanding the state’s role in health reform, and in disentangling policy and governance factors from other state characteristics.

A new report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Leonard Davis Institute looks at Marketplace enrollment and state exchange characteristics, and shows that states that created their own exchange have enrolled a higher percent of their eligible population in Marketplace plans than states that had the federal government partly or completely manage their exchange.

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ACOG Issues New Guidelines to Curb Overuse of C-Sections

Feb 27, 2014, 5:27 PM, Posted by Tara Oakman

Tara Oakman Tara Oakman

While I knew that having children would turn my world upside down, I assumed that this transition would be more metaphorical than literal. Ha! Moments before I was discharged from a Maryland hospital a few days after my twins were delivered by c-section, the ground shook violently. My husband had just left the hospital room to get the car, so I was alone with two newborns and a painful surgical wound. All I could think was ... “This is an earthquake! I have two babies. And I can’t move!

One of the scariest parts of the experience was that I couldn’t respond to my maternal instinct to quickly pick up and protect my babies because I had just had major abdominal surgery. Granted, managing in an earthquake is not a common part of recovery from a C-section, but there can be many other dangerous complications that occur more frequently, such as infection, emergency hysterectomy or heavy blood loss. It can also lead to greater difficulty with breastfeeding. C-sections are also very costly, even if there are no major complications. They are much more expensive than vaginal delivery.

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Simple, Small Changes Can Lead to Healthier Food Choices

Jan 21, 2014, 11:20 AM, Posted by Deborah Bae

traffic light graphic border

At this time of year, many of us find ourselves trying hard to stick to that New Year’s resolution to eat healthier. Here is some good news: simple changes in our environment can have meaningful, sustained effects on our ability to make healthy food choices.

Committing to a healthier diet and trying to lose weight is hard, and many people believe they can do it as long as they have the right motivation and attitude. We’ll say things like, “I’m going to eat better” or “I’m going to eat fewer unhealthy foods.” But that commitment can be tough when people face a variety of unhealthy choices and just a few healthy ones. Or when it’s hard to tell which is which.

Researcher and physician Anne Thorndike and her colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital tested a novel idea: if all healthy food and drinks sold in the hospital cafeteria were labeled green, and all unhealthy items had red labels, would people make healthier choices?

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And the Winner is … Streetlights, for Applying Big Data to Community Health

Jan 15, 2014, 12:41 PM, Posted by Paul Tarini

Cropped Streetlight project

Big data, the buzzword of choice these days in information technology, holds the promise of transforming health care as programmers and policy-makers figure out how to mine trillions of ones and zeros for information about the best (and worst) health practices, disease and lifestyle trends, interconnections, and insights. The problem is, where to start? To jump start the process, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation joined in a Knight News Challenge: Health and issued its own call to developers to come up with innovative ways to combine public health and health care data, with a $50,000 prize to the best idea.

The results are in. When the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced the winners of its News Challenge for ideas focused on unlocking the power of health data on January 15—you can see the list here—we also announced the winner of our companion prize for the best entries who combined public health data with data from health care to improve the health of communities. Our first place winner is the Streetlights Project from Chicago.

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The Smoking Generation

Jan 13, 2014, 11:06 AM, Posted by Jeff Meade

Chuck and Jean on their wedding day Chuck and Jean on their wedding day

When I was a little kid growing up in Norwich, N.Y., I earned candy money by helping out at Saturday night bingo, held in the basement hall of St. Bartholomew Church.

By "helping out," I mean taking orders (and collecting tips) from the little old ladies who were so focused on their bingo cards that they could not leave the table long enough to get themselves a drink or a snack.

Virtually all of those old ladies smoked. A blue-gray haze hung over the room like a dingy veil. I might as well have been chain-smoking Lucky Strikes the whole night.

When those old ladies placed their orders, their vocal chords coarsened by decades of smoking—“Get me a meatball sandwich, will ya, hon?" —they sounded to my impressionable young ears like the tough-guy character actor Broderick Crawford. (The little mustaches, perhaps, completed the illusion.)

People younger than I am probably can't imagine what it was like to live in that world, a world in which smoking was ubiquitous.

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A Portrait of Hope

Dec 16, 2013, 4:46 PM, Posted by Jeff Meade

Artist Chuck Connelly Artist Chuck Connelly and his monumental remembrance of the children of Sandy Hook

I first came to know Chuck Connelly in April of last year. He’s a gifted, famous and often controversial artist, whose work has appeared in countless galleries, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s very much his own man, and that man can be difficult. A writer once described Connelly as “Norman Rockwell on acid—a maverick narrative painter pushing the limits of myth into a modern malaise all his own.”

It’s a left-handed compliment, but there’s no getting around the undeniable truth: Chuck Connelly is an extraordinary talent. He may come across as a rumpled, dark-witted cynic, but on the inside, he is a luminous soul.

So here’s how I came to know Chuck Connelly. He’s an Irish-American who lives in Philly's East Oak Lane neighborhood, and I co-author a blog devoted to Irish culture in Philadelphia. So for our purposes, Connelly was grist for the mill.

And so it was that I found myself on the topmost floor of a ramshackle barn one dreary day last April, gazing upon Connelly’s most recent magnum opus: twenty painstakingly detailed oils on canvas, each one bearing the likeness of a first grader murdered by a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. All of the paintings were clustered in a simple 10- by 12-foot wooden frame. The entire assembly towered over us. It was a breathtaking, shattering remembrance.
 

When news of the shooting broke, Connelly reacted as the rest of us did, with horror, frustration and anger. A couple of days later, he started painting a portrait of one of the young victims, 6-year-old Emilie Parker. At first, he wasn’t sure where the project was taking him. At that point, it really wasn’t a project. “I started to do the one, Emilie, when it first happened,” Connelly explained to me. “Her face was everywhere. I just thought ... what a tragedy. So I painted her. Then I made Dylan (Hockley), and then I thought ... you know what? I gotta do them all.”

Last week, Connelly’s “Children of Sandy Hook” went on display at Villanova University to commemorate the one-year anniversary.

As that anniversary arrived last weekend, I thought about Chuck Connelly’s heartfelt tribute. It caused me to wonder, probably for the millionth time, when we’re ever going to come to grips with the problem of gun violence. Every shot fired wounds us all.

Here at RWJF, we have devoted a great deal of effort toward understanding gun violence and how to prevent it. One well-known example of our work in this area is grantee Cure Violence, formerly Ceasefire.

Here’s how we describe the program:

Cure Violence uses a public health model to reduce gun violence. By treating violence as a learned behavior that can be “unlearned,” Cure Violence offers a solution to a problem that had been seen as unsolvable.”

Obviously, gun violence is one aspect of a much broader and disturbing picture. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that violence of all kinds is a plague in the United States, and from our description of Cure Violence, you can begin to understand our response to it. We approach violence as a critical public health issue, and that point of view determines our course of action.

A recent example of our work to curb violence further illustrates that particular approach. It revolves around the issue of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. That’s a wonky term, but it is meant to describe and encompass the horrors routinely visited upon children, mostly in the form of abuse and neglect. Many of these children live a nightmarish existence.

Some might say we’re swimming against the tide on this one, but we are, as my colleague Susan Promislo wrote in this space a few months ago, “witnessing a health revolution.” Childhood trauma was the subject of a recent summit in Philadelphia, a confab that garnered a great deal of national attention. Throughout the country, more and more experts are turning their expertise to the problem of ACEs, and many of them are doing pioneering work to understand the problem’s causes, document its long-term emotional and physical damage, and develop creative and effective long-term solutions.

From our work, we know that there are no simple answers to countering childhood trauma—or any other kind of violence. Just a few weeks after the Newtown tragedy, a report by Kevin Freking in the Huffington Post cited a particularly painful statistic: “The United States has about six violent deaths per 100,000 residents.”

I find myself pondering those damning numbers. Can we really do what we want to do? Can we really make the country a better, less violent place? Sometimes it seems impossible. But if there’s one thing I have come to know about this place, it’s that most of us are incredibly hopeful. You can’t work here and not be an optimist at heart. It would be easy to throw up our hands and give up, but no one here gives up.

If the tragedy of Newtown tells us anything, it’s this: When it comes to the challenge of violence in America, if we are to prevail, we must be guided by hope. And to paraphrase one of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes: We can never, never give up.

Jeff Meade is a senior writer/producer for rwjf.org.