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Bringing Clean, Running Water to the Navajo Nation

May 3, 2021, 12:45 PM, Posted by Cindy Howe

Broken promises and structural racism have deprived New Mexico’s Navajo Nation of safe, running water for generations. A Navajo woman shares how she is actively changing this reality, one family at a time.

Darlene Arviso fills water tanks for Navajo tribal members. The "Water Lady" Darlene Arviso fills water tanks for Navajo tribal members who do not have access to running water. Photo credit: DigDeep, 2019.

Go to the sink, turn on the tap, get yourself a glass of water. To most people in America, this sounds like the most routine of activities. But for the families I work with on the lands of the Navajo Nation in northwest New Mexico, it is not something we can take for granted. And so when water does flow from a faucet inside a home for the first time, the tears often flow with it. This is a moment of deep gratitude and joy for us.

Tó éí ííńá át’é. In the Navajo language, that means water is life. You’ll see these words painted onto our homes and graffitied across the landscape because we understand that life can not be sustained without water. In our culture, it is a sacred element, along with Earth, fire, and air.

And yet almost one-third of my tribe lacks running water. Pause for a moment to consider what that means. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that people in America use an average of 80-100 gallons of water every day. Our families know how to preserve scarce resources, so we use a lot less than that—but meeting basic water needs is still a complex, time-consuming task. Imagine the difficulty of attaching a hose to a 55-gallon water barrel, filling a bucket, and hauling it inside every time you want to cook, bathe, do laundry, or clean the house. Add in the costs of buying bottled water to make sure that what you drink is safe.  

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It Is Time to End the Sale of All Flavored Tobacco Products

Apr 23, 2021, 12:30 PM, Posted by Matt Pierce

Taking flavored tobacco products off the market would save millions of lives, reduce health care costs, and ensure an equitable approach to better health in the United States.

Smoke free signage is on display at a bustop.

Over the past few years, we have seen a growing number of states and cities adopting policies that restrict or end the sales of flavored tobacco products. For these policies to work for everyone, equity must be a central focus, and all populations must benefit from the movement’s success. This means we must push for comprehensive flavor bans and, above all, restrictions on the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.

Tobacco companies rely on flavors because of how well they work to attract and keep new customers. For decades, the tobacco industry has specifically targeted Black people in America with advertising campaigns for menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products like flavored cigars. Like menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars have been designed to hook kids and have disproportionately harmed Black youth. After Congress banned all flavored cigarettes except menthols, cigar manufacturers increased their marketing of flavored little cigars—or cigarillos—which closely resemble cigarettes. Youth use of flavored cigars increased in subsequent years and has remained especially high among Black youth.

As a result of these pernicious marketing and sales tactics, tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death among Black people in America, claiming 45,000 Black lives a year. Black people in America die at higher rates than other groups from tobacco-related causes like cancer, heart disease, and stroke.

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Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and the Rise of Local Solutions

Apr 15, 2021, 1:00 PM, Posted by Sharon Roerty

How can U.S. cities inspire us to tackle climate change and its health impacts? An urban alchemist-turned-funder shares reflections on where we’ve been and where we’re headed with the movement for environmental justice in the United States and abroad.

Volunteers work on an urban farm operating as a community project.

Earth Day will be 51 years young this April 22nd—and I have been a witness to every one of them. The environmental activism that it launched and inspired has shaped me as an individual, shaped culture in the U.S. and beyond, and shaped the planet we all share. And it continues to evolve, as evident by the present-day focus on environmental justice and disproportionate health impacts felt by low-income communities and communities of color. As a child of the 1970s, I have seen momentous changes—environmental policies and discoveries that pointed in the right direction, setbacks and disappointments, and profiles in courage.

As a youngster, I drew inspiration from the boldness of Jacque Cousteau, the brilliance of Jane Goodall, and the courage of Norma Rae. As an adult, I look to the power of local change agents like Majora Carter of South Bronx, NYC and Margie Eugene-Richard of Southern Louisiana. In my lifetime, I have seen the institution of recycling, lead removed from gasoline and paint, asbestos banned from buildings, and consumer preference shift toward plant-based cleaning products and chemical-free food. I am excited by the burgeoning international movement for green schoolyards. I have also seen devastating environmental crises in places like Love Canal, N.Y., Flint, Mich., the Gulf of Mexico, and Prince William Sound. All of these represent both the incredible harm and good we can do when we act collectively.

I hope in my lifetime to witness less David vs. Goliath battles for the environment and a reckoning of environmental injustices. I have hope to share.

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What it Will Take to Address the COVID-19 Eviction Crisis

Apr 13, 2021, 9:45 AM, Posted by Diane Yentel, Giridhar Mallya

Navigating a public health crisis without a home has been a stark reality for too many in the United States. The problem will intensify unless leaders ensure that federal rental assistance reaches those who need it most.

A man finds eviction notice on the door of the house.

Now that Congress has approved more than $46 billion in emergency rental assistance, will that money reach the millions of Americans who need it most—the lowest income and most marginalized tenants and small landlords?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently extended the national eviction moratorium, which will prevent tens of millions from losing their homes through June 30. Beyond that, it’s crucial to ensure that emergency rental assistance funds from the two COVID relief packages passed by Congress are distributed swiftly and equitably to tenants with the lowest incomes and others who face systemic disadvantage in accessing public benefits such as Black, Indigenous and People of Color and immigrants.

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Meeting Parents and Caregivers at Their Aspirations

Apr 5, 2021, 2:00 PM, Posted by Jennifer Ng'andu

How can we shape a future in which ALL children and families thrive? Join our May 10th webinar where we'll discuss findings from new research that explores aspirations and challenges of racially and ethnically diverse parents and caregivers who are raising the next generation!

A smiling family shares a moment together during a summer event.

“The biggest hope every parent has for their children is for them to be healthy, happy, and educated.”

This quote sums up a universal sentiment, expressed by a mother living in New York, about what all parents and caregivers want and strive to provide for their children. But what happens when parents are doing everything they can to fulfill those hopes and it’s still not enough? More than meeting families where they are, we need to meet them at their aspirations.

We can begin by truly listening to parents and caregivers, and building from their wisdom. To help achieve this understanding, over the last 18 months, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) commissioned in-depth research with parents and caregivers to learn about the aspirations they have for their children, the challenges they face, and the factors that help them thrive.

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Connecting Systems to Build Health Equity During COVID-19

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

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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New Narratives of Hope This Black History Month–And Beyond

Feb 9, 2021, 12:00 AM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

More than 50 years after the civil rights movement we still have a lot to do to reduce discrimination and increase health equity. Dwayne Proctor reflects on the role of stories in the search for solutions.

An older student plays around with a younger student in a school auditorium.

Author’s note, February 2021: My post below was first published in February 2018. Over the past harrowing year, the issues it explores have become even more urgent, as the murder of George Floyd triggered a racial reckoning during a global pandemic that has hit communities of color hardest. In the midst of it all, systemic racism continues to take a brutal toll. The death of Dr. Susan Moore, who called out the racism she was experiencing as a patient, is just one example. Moore’s death, and those of Clyde Murphy and Shalon Irving, which I wrote about in my blog, are painful reminders of the cost of letting such racism continue. In the words of RWJF Trustee Dr. David Williams: “The first thing we have to do is acknowledge that the everyday racial discrimination embedded in our culture is sickening and killing African-Americans, and make a new commitment to make America a healthier place for all.”

One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories is watching from my bedroom window as my city burned in the riots that erupted after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination 50 years ago.  

The next afternoon, my mother brought me to the playground at my school in Southeast Washington, D.C., which somehow was untouched. As she pushed me in a swing, she asked if I understood what had happened the day before and who Dr. King was.

“Yes,” I said. “He was working to make things better for Negroes like you.”

My mother, whose skin is several tones darker than mine, stared at me in surprise. Somehow, even at 4 years old, I had learned to observe differences in complexion.

That is particularly interesting to me now, as I eventually came to believe that “race” is a social construct.

Of course racism and discrimination exist. They are deeply embedded in America’s history and culture—but so too is the struggle against them.

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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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Help Us Learn How Public Policy Can Advance Racial Equity

Oct 28, 2020, 12:30 PM, Posted by Mona Shah

We’re announcing $2 million in grants for policy research. Send us your ideas for studying the impact of local, state, and national policies designed to promote racial equity.

Woman wearing face masks and holding hands.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This funding opportunity is now closed.

When Harris County voters approved a $2.5 billion bond to pay for more than 500 local flood-control projects, it seemed like a sound response to Hurricane Harvey. In 2017, the storm dropped 50 inches of rain in the Houston region, flooding some 166,000 homes. Based on a traditional return-on-investment analysis, it might also have appeared reasonable to spend that bond money in neighborhoods with the most expensive properties.

But county officials understood what that would mean—little protection for communities living with the most inadequate social, physical, and economic resources—many of whom are communities of color. And so, they chose a different policy approach. They gave preference to projects that ranked higher on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index, which uses socioeconomic status, racial and ethnic status, household composition, housing, access to transportation, and other metrics to uncover potential vulnerability. The result: funds for flood control prioritized towards low-income communities and communities of color, those least able to recover from disasters.

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Helping All New Jerseyans Live Their Healthiest Lives

Sep 17, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Sallie George

We're breaking down barriers to health equity in our home state of New Jersey by encouraging collaboration across sectors and communities.

Girls running after school with hands up.

New Jersey is ranked as one of the nation’s healthiest states—on average. But if you were to look more closely, you’d see the numbers mask significant differences in health across the state. For instance life expectancy in one Newark census tract is 75.6 years while just a few miles outside the city, it’s 87.7 years.

Race is a big factor contributing to this and other health disparities. For example, babies born into Black families in New Jersey are twice as likely to die before their first birthday in contrast to those born into white families.

Other factors contributing to health disparities include income, gender, and education. Some are less apparent, like the distance from people’s homes to parks and grocery stores or the availability of public transit. The point is that many things beyond what might immediately be thought of as health related do, in fact, play a major role in determining health. 

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