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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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Understanding Our Health Before the Pandemic Can Help Us Improve It Afterward

Jan 29, 2021, 10:45 AM, Posted by Anita Chandra, Carolyn Miller

Measuring health and the social and economic factors that influenced it before the pandemic helps us understand the kind of risks the nation faced previously. It can also inform how to move forward toward recovery. 

Man receives blood pressure test.

2020 was arguably one of the most difficult years in American history, challenging our resilience and surfacing enduring and systemic challenges to our collective health and well-being. As we continue to measure the pandemic’s impact on short- and long-term health, as well as other social and economic indicators, it is useful to note where we stood pre-pandemic. Understanding the conditions and trends that shaped our health before COVID-19 helps us assess whether the systems now being tested to respond to COVID-19 are robust. 

Last year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), along with the RAND Corporation, shared an update on the national set of measures that we have been using to track our journey toward a culture where every person has a fair and just opportunity to live the healthiest life possible. The goal of the Culture of Health measures is to offer signals of change with a focus on broader social and economic drivers of health, well-being, and equity, as well as the role all sectors play in influencing health outcomes. Developing a clearer picture of what is changing (or not) via the Culture of Health measures is useful for directing investments and identifying where, as a nation, we need to make progress. 

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Research Shows the Importance and Paradox of Early Childhood Care and Education

Oct 8, 2020, 10:30 AM, Posted by Krista Scott, Tina Kauh

Dependable child care is critical for healthy development—and for the nation to return to work. However, costs are often unaffordable even while many child-care workers are not making a living wage. Ultimately, the entire nation faces the consequences of a system in crisis.

Young girl coloring in a daycare facility.

While working from home and caring for our families as we wait out the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t always been easy, it certainly is a privilege that we value during these unprecedented times. We’re fortunate that our organization recognizes the importance of families and caregiving. In addition, the nature of our jobs allows us to work remotely and have flexible schedules. This helps us support our families during a global pandemic. Unfortunately, the vast majority of working parents in America today, especially women of color, don’t have this choice.

Instead, as pressure mounts to reopen the country, many working parents face an impossible dilemma. Those without the option to telecommute are forced to return to work while struggling to find safe and affordable child care. Or they must stay at home to care for their children and face financial ruin. This burden falls disproportionately on women of color who are on the frontlines of many essential jobs. Many are also child-care providers who face the monumental feat of juggling their low wage, high risk jobs with caring for their families and themselves in the midst of a pandemic. Ultimately, the entire country faces the consequences of an inequitable childhood care system in deep crisis.

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In West Baltimore, Physical Distancing Was a Way of Life Before COVID-19

Jun 1, 2020, 10:00 AM, Posted by Yolanda Ogbolu

Further physical distancing during COVID-19 has made us find creative and generous ways to strengthen connections.

Illustration of a family.

Imagine what it’s like to live on a block where elderly neighbors are bolted behind their front doors for fear of venturing out. Where parents worry daily about safety, so they resist letting children play in the neighborhood. Where more than half of the houses lie empty.

These images are not consequences of life under a pandemic. This was life pre-COVID-19 for the Baltimore neighborhood where I grew up and now work as a nurse researcher.  

For the past year, my research team at the University of Maryland, the Black Mental Health Alliance, the PATIENTS program, and B’more for Healthy Babies at Promise Heights, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has been listening to residents of two disadvantaged neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Residents told us they were “self-isolating” from family, neighbors and the community to cope with living in a neighborhood where they don’t feel supported, safe, or connected.

As one resident put it: “A lot of things scare us...it makes us not want to allow our kids to go to the recs that open because we fear that a drive by [shooting] or...standing in the doorway you can get shot.”

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Why Neighborhoods—and the Policies that Shape Them—Matter

Jan 23, 2020, 2:00 PM, Posted by Dolores Acevedo-Garcia

The Child Opportunity Index 2.0 uses contemporary data to measure and map inequities in all 72,000 neighborhoods in the United States. The tool helps researchers, city planners, community leaders and others identify and address inequities in their metros.  

Boys and girls run and play in the park. Image credit: iStock

The Tale of Two Boys Growing Up in Cleveland

Let’s ask two hypothetical 9-year-old boys a question: What is it like to grow up in Cleveland? 

Each boy attends school, and enjoys riding his bike and playing with Legos. Both live in Cleveland. Beyond these similarities, their life experiences are—and will continue to be—starkly different based on multiple, complex factors that lie within their neighborhoods.

Neighborhood A 

The boy living in Neighborhood A faces a host of obstacles to opportunity and well-being. 

Economic adversity is the norm. One in four families struggle with poverty, and nearly 83 percent of his peers in school need free or reduced-price lunch.

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A Holistic Approach to State Policymaking That Strengthens Families by Advancing Equity

Dec 16, 2019, 1:00 PM, Posted by Monica Hobbs Vinluan

A multi-state laboratory explores the interconnectedness of programs and policies to find ways for all families to thrive.

Kids jumping on an interactive exhibit at a museum.

Families don’t live in silos—one silo for health care, one for child care support, and yet another for food assistance. They need all those things—and more—to build strong and healthy futures for their children.

That’s why at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), we're supporting a multi-state laboratory for advancing policies that strengthen families across a range of issues. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) is the hub for this initiative. We are administering $2.65 million in grants to state-based organizations working to ensure that children and families get the support and resources needed to raise healthy kids through policy and systems change.

That means instead of addressing one issue at a time—e.g., child care supports or family leave—an array of issues are being addressed simultaneously. These include child care and family leave and minimum wage and job training and other policies that can help families get ahead. These policy levers are interconnected, playing off each other, which is why a holistic approach is needed to make real progress in families’ lives.

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The Power of Local Data in Action

Aug 22, 2019, 12:00 PM, Posted by Marc N. Gourevitch

With the City Health Dashboard, communities across the United States are using data presented on a feature-rich website to create healthier and more equitable communities. Lessons learned will help more community leaders pinpoint local health challenges and close gaps in U.S. cities and neighborhoods.

A meeting facilitator refers to a bar chart.

If you knew children born and raised in one neighborhood of your city tend to live 10, 20 or even 30 years longer than those raised in another, what kinds of questions would you ask?

Local data on social, economic, and health factors can help city planners, policymakers, and community advocates illuminate approaches to such challenges and drive change.

We heard from city leaders that there was a lack of data at the city and neighborhood level clearly showing which factors have the greatest influence on their community’s health and well-being. So we got to work and created the City Health Dashboard. Launched in 2018, the Dashboard integrates city- and neighborhood-level data from multiple national sources, providing 37 measures that address health, such as obesity rates and life expectancy, and conditions that shape health, such as child poverty, unemployment, and residential segregation. The country’s 500 largest cities—those with populations of approximately 66,000 or more—are all represented in the Dashboard, which also includes a rich set of resources to help cities take action to improve health.

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Where Mental Health and Social Justice Meet

Mar 11, 2019, 1:00 PM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

A leader committed to the mental health and healing of black communities shares his insights.

Face graphic.

A few years ago, I read a painfully insightful account in the New York Times of what it means to be a black American struggling with mental health. The author vividly describes how socio-historical “trauma lives in our blood,” materializing in our daily lives, and ultimately affecting our mental health.

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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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Creative Communities Are Addressing Social Isolation

Jan 7, 2019, 3:00 PM, Posted by Maryjoan Ladden

Social connections are not just nice to have—they can significantly affect our health and well-being. Inspired by creative approaches abroad, communities across the United States are taking steps to reduce social isolation and increase residents’ sense of belonging.

It’s only January and already, I’m counting down the days to spring when warm weather will arrive. The long, cold months of winter can be isolating—the snow and subzero temperatures make it difficult to get out and about. Winter is particularly tough for children who can’t go outside to play, and for newcomers from warmer climates who are not accustomed to the cold. For people who don’t have meaningful social connections, the cold weather season can exacerbate the isolation they face year-round.

Social isolation is a serious problem for many. It can lead to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and even suicidal thoughts. Social isolation can impact our health in other ways too—by escalating unhealthy habits, stress, lack of sleep—and putting us at higher risk for coronary heart disease and stroke.

Fortunately, there are many creative ways in which communities across the United States are tackling social isolation and building a sense of community.

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