Investing in the Next Generation of Health-Focused Leaders

Sep 12, 2016, 9:00 AM, Posted by

Collaboration—among people who don’t traditionally work together on a daily basis and who bring unique perspectives—carries the best potential to solve today's complex health and social issues effectively and equitably.

A meeting facilitator refers to a bar chart.

Looking out upon the worshippers at New Era Church in downtown Indianapolis, Rev. Dr. Clarence C. Moore sees row after row of families facing difficult challenges stemming from a pressing statewide problem: the over-incarceration of black people. Indiana ranks second in the country for the number of children who have an incarcerated parent. As a result, many children live in single-parent households or foster care, and live in poverty. Many lack a formal education until they reach kindergarten—and so they aren’t ready when they get there. They struggle, many ultimately drop out of school, and the vicious cycle continues.

“I tell my congregation that there is nothing wrong with these seeds—these children,” Rev. Moore says. “It’s the soil these seeds are planted in that is the problem.”

Cultivating that soil through quality early education is the focus of a new project to help children of incarcerated parents thrive, and to keep these children—now and in the future—out of prison. The project team pairs early childhood researchers with a faith and justice leader to create solutions grounded in evidence and shaped by the community.

This team is part of Interdisciplinary Research Leaders, one of four new Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) national leadership programs that just announced their first classes of participants.

These programs recognize that creating lasting change and building a Culture of Health requires leadership from every field and profession—within health and far beyond. Through leadership development, collaboration and funding for innovative projects, the programs will break down silos and find outside-the-box solutions.

That’s exactly what’s happening in Indianapolis. The team includes Angela M. Tomlin, an associate professor in the Indiana University School of Medicine who specializes in child development; Karen Ruprecht, director of innovation in early education at Early Learning Indiana; and Shoshanna Spector, executive director of Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCan). As a member of IndyCan, Rev. Moore is bringing his deep understanding of the community’s needs to the research design.

Each team member has been working on issues such as early childhood education, poverty reduction, racial justice and the over-incarceration of black people. What was missing from that work was a vehicle for collective action.

As a researcher you get to become very good in your narrow scope, with much of our research being quantitative,” Ruprecht says. “This collaboration allows us to branch out, braid together our unique skills and create a body of research that is rooted in community-defined problems and produces real-world solutions.

Spector agrees that collaboration is key to creating lasting change. “To solve the problem of over-incarceration we need to work outside our own disciplines,” she says. “My group can help bring the grassroots together to create policy change, but not if we don’t have the evidence-based research to back us up. Now we will have all the pieces in place.”

Building Diverse National Leadership

This kind of collaboration—among people who don’t work together on a day-to-day basis and who bring markedly different approaches to a problem—carries the best potential to solve today's complex health and social issues effectively and equitably. That’s the vision behind the Foundation’s four new leadership development programs. Many of the 154 participants say the opportunity to work with others outside their field and to have an influence beyond their workplace drew them to the program.

In addition to Interdisciplinary Research Leaders, which is for teams of researchers and community leaders interested in applying research to create on-the-ground change, the other programs are:

  • Health Policy Research Scholars, for doctoral scholars from populations underrepresented in graduate programs and/or from disadvantaged backgrounds. One of the scholars in this program grew up in poverty in Georgia, became a research neuroscientist exploring public health and social justice issues, and through this training will learn how to develop and use research with policymakers to address social inequalities that are often ignored.
  • Clinical Scholars, which brings together health care providers who don’t often get to collaborate outside their specialty and asks them to tackle urgent problems from every angle. One team in New York—made up of two family physicians, a social worker, a gynecologist and a physician’s assistant—is creating a Center of Excellence in Transgender Health to provide comprehensive and affirming medical, surgical and mental health services.
  • Culture of Health Leaders, for professionals from many different professions and backgrounds. One of these leaders is working on solutions to the water crisis in Flint, Mich. Another, in Trenton, N.J., is teaming with Nigerian physicians to look at how the health of black women can improve when they come together to participate in programs for women of color.

Lists of the participants and maps showing their locations across the country are available on the program websites. Over the next three years, they will be funded to participate in leadership development with national experts; design and work on a project in their communities; and explore ways to apply a health lens in their careers, workplaces and professions. Their collaboration will generate fresh approaches, rejuvenate their work and provide new outlets for impact. Ultimately these projects will advance significant, sustainable improvements in health and equity outcomes with a life-long influence on the participants. As more and more leaders pass through these programs, they will begin to reshape leadership and redefine notions of whose job it is to create a healthier society.

Join the Culture of Health Journey

We look forward to sharing more robust stories about these leaders as their stories continue to unfold. Meanwhile, we invite you to apply health-focused thinking and collaboration into your own leadership. Be curious about the impact your decisions have on health, how you can lead with health and equity as clear guides and who else you can bring into your team to expand your thinking. Use your leadership to advance a Culture of Health.

Are you committed to creating lasting change and hungry to collaborate with other innovators from many different viewpoints? Consider applying for one of these four new leadership programs. Applications for the next class open in January. Learn more about our leadership programs.

Pam Dickson / RWJF


Pam Dickson is the associate vice president for program staff at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.