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Connecting Systems to Build Health Equity During COVID-19

Mar 1, 2021, 12:00 AM, Posted by Chris Lyttle

We’re seeking the best ways to work together to address racial inequities. Sign up for funding alerts to receive information on the next round of research grants.        

Demonstration sign.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in July 2020.

A Personal Journey

It's hard to describe water to a fish while it’s swimming in it. I was that fish, growing up in a working-class, majority Black community in southwest Ohio. For instance, it hadn’t occurred to me to question why my school had metal detectors and armed police officers at every entrance yet so few textbooks that students had no choice but to share. Or why we had to travel to find affordable fresh vegetables while unhealthy food nearby was as easily accessible as payday loans and other predatory financial products. Having unmet needs was normal in these waters.

I was in high school when I began wondering why there were so many of these unmet needs in my community. An invitation to a cancer research conference hosted at a neighboring public school was an eye-opening experience. The school was one of the top-ranked in the state, nestled in a wealthy neighborhood with a well-stocked grocery store and multiple banks within walking distance. 

These waters were different.

That sense of unfairness filtered into my own life from another angle. I attended a school with limited resources which meant that opportunities within the school were offered to only a few. Since my mother was a powerful advocate for my education, I had access to after-school activities and advanced placement classes while friends living on the same block did not. That bothered me too.

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Five Experts Reflect on the Health Equity Implications of the Pandemic

Dec 1, 2020, 12:45 PM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

As the novel coronavirus swept the globe, structural racism drove its disproportionate impact on communities of color in our nation. As we look ahead to a new year, experts weigh in with thoughts and hope for shaping a healthier, more equitable future.

Two people wearing masks facing each other.

When acclaimed Barbadian author Karen Lord envisioned life on a small island during a pandemic in her story The Plague Doctors, she never imagined that within weeks of its publication, “history would become present, and fiction real life.” Lord’s short story in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) first-ever book of fiction, Take Us to a Better Place, was written months before coronavirus emerged. With chilling prescience, it imagines a deadly infectious disease besetting the globe and follows Dr. Audra Lee as she fights to save her 6-year-old niece. The heroine confronts not just the disease but also a society that serves the wealthy at the expense of others.

This latter point was especially relevant here in the United States where COVID-19 hit communities of color dramatically harder than others. Centuries of structural racism have created numerous barriers to health including difficult living conditions; limited educational opportunity; high-risk jobs; lack of access to paid leave and disparities in care. Historical trauma has also driven deeply rooted mistrust of the medical establishment. All of these interconnected factors have magnified risk for both exposure to COVID-19 and the worst possible outcomes from the virus.

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Energy, Water and Broadband: Three Services Crucial To Health Equity

Sep 10, 2020, 10:00 AM, Posted by Pamela Russo

Imagine enduring the COVID-19 pandemic without running water, reliable internet or affordable gas and electricity. While many have faced this stark reality, communities around the nation are working to build health and equity into these services.

Power line at twilight.

As COVID-19 swept our nation this year, the important influence utility services have on our health became clearer than ever. Running water is essential for washing hands to prevent infection. Electricity keeps individuals and families comfortable while they follow recommendations to stay home. And internet access allows employees to work from home, children to learn remotely while schools remain closed, patients to access needed health check-ups, and all of us to stay connected.

Conveniently powering up our laptops, logging onto the internet and turning on the faucet are things many of us take for granted. But the COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed fault lines in America’s aging infrastructure. These inequities especially impact people of color, rural and tribal communities, and low-income households. For them, energy, water, and broadband are often unavailable, unaffordable, unreliable—and even unsafe.

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Caring for Mental Health in Communities of Color During COVID-19

May 5, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

Lack of access to testing, fear of being profiled while wearing face masks, and other issues are increasing toxic stress and straining mental health in communities of color. Learn what one leader is doing about it.

Man with hand on forehead.

One of the most troubling aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is how it is exacerbating long-standing and deeply rooted inequities in communities of color. Health disparities stemming from structural racism have contributed to COVID-19’s devastating toll on blacks and Latinos in America. Often overlooked is how heightened stress from this heavy burden is impacting mental health.

Yolo Akili Robinson, a recipient of the RWJF Award for Health Equity, is swiftly responding to this new reality the pandemic has created. As the executive director and founder of Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), he leads his colleagues in training health care providers and community activists, as well as non-mental health professionals (family members, peers, etc.) to address mental health needs in communities of color. Robinson is witnessing firsthand how lack of access to testing and fear of profiling while wearing face masks, among other issues are increasing toxic stress and straining mental health.

In the following Q&A, Robinson shares insights about the impact and implications of COVID-19 on mental health within communities of color.

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Handwashing to Slow the Coronavirus Pandemic

Mar 12, 2020, 12:00 PM

Among several steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus is one we can act on several times a day: frequently and thoroughly washing our hands. But how frequent and how thorough? And what about those whose living conditions make handwashing anything but easy?

Young boy washes his hands at the bathroom sink.

The simple act of handwashing has always been an important factor in preventing the spread of disease. As the coronavirus gains traction, it’s all the more critical. But a quick splash of water and perfunctory spritz of soap is nowhere near sufficient to keep the virus at bay, if you’ve been exposed. Now is the time to be sure we’re washing often enough and doing it right.

With that in mind, we want to share some resources. First, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers very specific guidance as to how often. Experts there say we should wash our hands:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

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Disability Inclusion: Shedding Light on an Urgent Health Equity Issue

Dec 2, 2019, 11:00 AM, Posted by Richard Besser

We cannot achieve a Culture of Health until our nation is fully inclusive. Yet systemic factors prevent many people with disabilities from thriving.

Next year will mark 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became federal law—first of its kind legislation that outlawed discrimination against people living with physical or mental disabilities. It was a culmination of decades of challenging societal barriers that limited access and full participation of people with disabilities.

And yet in spite of the ADA’s passage, we still have a long way to go before society is fully inclusive of the 61 million people living in this country with some type of disability. Judy Heumann understands that while the ADA is important, in practice, “we’re not done yet." She is currently a leading advocate for disability inclusion and has been an advisor to institutions like the U.S. State Department, the World Bank, and the Ford Foundation. As a child, Judy was barred from going to school because she used a wheelchair. Years later, she was denied a teaching license for the same reason. These obstacles to education and employment are just two of many barriers that stand in the way of inclusion. Judy understood the need for strong advocacy in partnership with others experiencing continuous discrimination because of their disabilities. This discrimination is also often compounded by class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, or sexual orientation among other characteristics.

I had the chance to personally meet Judy at the first convening of the Presidents’ Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy this year. Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation and I are co-chairing this group of 13 other foundation executives to champion inclusion of people with disabilities in our own institutions and within philanthropy. We have a lot to learn from Judy and many others who have challenged systems and paved the way to making our nation more inclusive.

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Home Is Where Our Health Is

Jul 22, 2019, 12:00 PM, Posted by Jessica Mark, Najaf Ahmad

Where we live affects how long and how well we live. Yet, affordable housing is out of reach for too many. RWJF is addressing housing stability, equity, and health through data and research.

Everyone should have the opportunity to live in a safe community.

There is growing evidence that safe and secure housing is a critical factor in achieving good health. Where we live can determine whether we’re connected to: safe places to play and be active; quality jobs and schools; and transportation to get us where we need to go. Yet millions of people in America live in substandard or overcrowded housing, temporary shelters, in cars, and on streets. Disadvantages also exist for the many living in residentially segregated neighborhoods isolated from opportunity. For them and others, the inability to access quality housing and neighborhoods deepens challenges and makes it much more difficult to be healthy and break out of poverty. 

Housing’s profound effect on health is often overlooked and misunderstood. This year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), led by President and CEO Richard Besser, MD, is shining a light on the link between housing and health. In his Annual Message, Besser discusses how safe and affordable housing supports positive outcomes across the lifespan—and how unsafe and insecure housing can deepen inequity and undermine a Culture of Health. 

He shares stories from housing initiatives across the country—from Boligee, Ala., to Chelsea, Mass., to San Antonio. These examples show that when we improve the quality and affordability of housing—health and lives also improve. Creating safe and affordable housing—as an essential part of comprehensive efforts to transform impoverished neighborhoods into places of opportunity—becomes a pathway to helping communities thrive.

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Data Maps the Impact of Where a Child Grows Up

Jan 9, 2019, 2:00 PM, Posted by Kerry Anne McGeary

The Opportunity Atlas allows users to interactively explore data on children’s outcomes into adulthood for every Census tract in the United States. This can inform local efforts to build equitable, prosperous, and healthier communities.

U.S. Map for Opportunity Atlas.

In the Boston Edison neighborhood of Detroit, black children raised in low-income households have grown up to have an average household income of $28,000/year as adults, and under 1 percent of that population has been incarcerated as adults. In contiguous Dexter-Linwood, just one census tract to the north, the average earnings for the same group is $17,000/year, with adult incarceration rates hovering close to 8 percent.

If some neighborhoods lift children out of poverty, and others trap them there, the obvious next step is to figure out how these communities differ. Travel to Charlotte, N.C., which has one of the highest job growth rates in America. But data reveals (surprisingly) that availability of jobs and a strong regional economy do not translate to upward mobility in this region. Children who grew up in low-income families in Charlotte have one of the lowest economic mobility rates in the nation. What does help, according to the The Opportunity Atlas (the Atlas), is growing up with less discrimination, around people who have jobs and higher incomes—but only when those factors are found in their immediate neighborhood. If they are present a mile away, it doesn’t seem to matter much according to the data.

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Surgeon General Jerome Adams and the Power of Partnerships

Apr 26, 2018, 11:00 AM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

The 20th United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams joined RWJF President and CEO Rich Besser to discuss how the power of partnerships can help transform communities and advance equity.

SG Jerome Adams, Richard Besser

As a child, the United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, MPH, suffered from asthma so severe that he spent months at time in the hospital, even once being airlifted to a children’s hospital in Washington, D.C. During these stays he was struck by the fact that he’d never encountered a black physician. That finally changed when as an undergraduate he met a prominent African-American doctor who had overcome his own significant life obstacles. Seeing another African-American making important contributions to the field of medicine inspired the young Jerome Adams to decide, “I can do that too.”

With that resolve, he embarked on a path that led to becoming an anesthesiologist and culminated in his appointment as the nation’s 20th surgeon general.  

Reflecting on his journey, Dr. Adams notes, “that’s why your efforts at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) are so important. You’re providing mentorship and leadership opportunities to those who wouldn’t otherwise know how to navigate the world of public health.”

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Rich Besser’s Journey of Service

May 11, 2017, 11:00 AM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

From his Princeton roots to his experiences as a pediatrician, public health practitioner and journalist, Rich Besser shares stories and lessons from a career dedicated to service in this Q&A.

Richard Besser stands near a mural at RWJF in Princeton, N.J.

Rich Besser was a fourth-year medical student when he found himself performing his first (and last!) solo emergency Cesarean section at a hospital tucked within a rural Himalayan village in Manali, India.

He had come to Lady Willingdon Hospital eager to learn about health problems facing people within the developing world, and worked under a gifted local surgeon, Dr. George “Laji” Varghese. Providing care for the underserved population there was no small feat. For instance, the power would often go out during surgeries, requiring someone to hold a flashlight over the operating table.

Dr. Laji one day left Rich in charge as he departed for a week-long meeting. Before leaving, as a precaution, he walked Rich through how to perform an emergency Cesarean section since they were high up in the mountains and hours away from the next health care facility.

Sure enough, a few days later a woman who’d struggled through labor for over a day arrived. A senior nurse noted that the baby’s heart didn’t sound good.

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