A Message from Richard Besser, MD, RWJF President and CEO
For 52 years, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has operated under the fundamental belief that everyone in America should have a fair and just opportunity to thrive. We hold on to that belief now more than ever. And, as we look to RWJF’s future, we are making significant changes to our work to center dismantling one of the biggest barriers to health in America: structural racism.
We all have dreams for ourselves and our families. But we don’t all have the same opportunities to make those dreams come true. The convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning of 2020 made that clear. People of color died at higher rates than White people, especially at the beginning of the pandemic; the drop in life expectancy for Black Americans was twice as great as that of White Americans. Structural racism embedded in every aspect of society is the root cause of the health disparities that persist today.
For too long, our social practices, laws, and policies have placed more value on some lives than others based on race, class, and other factors. To achieve health equity, we have to uproot this hierarchy of human value.
Health is more than a measure of vital signs or absence of disease. As the World Health Organization said more than 75 years ago, it is a state of physical, mental and social wellbeing. Health requires access to clean drinking water and affordable healthcare. Health reflects the ways policies shape neighborhoods and support families. With that in mind, RWJF is working to build upon our Culture of Health vision through our long-term focus: dismantling the structural racism that permeates society with the ambitious goal of building the future we all want for our children and grandchildren.
While we are focused on racism as a root cause of health inequity because it intensifies all other forms of discrimination, we are also committed to working alongside our partners to tear down other forms of bias that serve as barriers to health and wellbeing, such as sexism, ableism, classism, and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
RWJF is committed to partnering with you to build a future where all communities thrive—a future where health equity is a reality. This is an ambitious goal, but it’s not a new one. Many of you have been confronting these very racist structures for a long time. We are committed to partnering with you for the long term. And this commitment starts with our listening and learning.
A health equity panel discussion in St. Louis with (left to right) author and activist Edgar Villanueva, Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Dr. Diana N. Derige, Dr. Laura Gerald, and Dr. Rich Besser.
Last year, we held a health and racial equity summit in St. Louis, where many of you reaffirmed the urgency of confronting these barriers. We heard you. I spoke on a panel about the need to look inward at our own history and practices if we are deeply committed to this work. I shared the stage with philanthropic and other institutional leaders who have already held up a mirror to themselves to reimagine their approach to a range of practices including grantmaking and organizational culture to learn from their past successes as well as from their missteps.
Like them, we are launching a process to examine our legacy in order to sustain a more equitable approach to our work in the future. We will tell the truth about our past. And in collaboration with our community partners, we will work to repair past harm.
We have already made concrete changes in how we work. For the past two years, we have worked internally and with our partners to develop new strategies that guide everything we do. That approach aims to harness the collective power, wisdom and resilience of partners and communities to remove structural barriers to health.
RWJF has established three ambitious goals we believe we can achieve in our lifetime.
Economic Inclusion for Family Wellbeing: We believe a nation is possible where families have affordable, quality childcare, and where no one must choose between paying for meals or paying their bills.
Equitable and Accountable Public Health and Healthcare Systems: We deserve a healthcare system that provides respectful, high-quality care for everyone and a Public Health System that works together with communities to dismantle structural racism as a root cause of health disparities in America.
Healthy and Equitable Community Conditions: We envision flourishing communities where everyone has access to clean, safe drinking water and safe, stable housing; where jobs pay a living wage; where we have torn down the walls of segregation, and all residents are seen as deserving of respect and dignity.
RWJF strongly believes that together we can help build a world where health is no longer a privilege, but a right. These goals are a critical piece of realizing that vision.
In the coming weeks and months, we will share more about this vision. People intentionally created the unfair systems and structures that exist today. It is that intentionality that gives us hope. It means that together, we can intentionally remake them. To do so, we will support and amplify the community-informed solutions that each of you have championed for so long. Your expertise and partnership will ensure that we reimagine laws, policies and practices that support health and wellbeing for all. We commit to listening, to learning, to partnering, to speaking out, and, most importantly, to acting. In doing so, we believe that we can realize health equity—faster and together.
About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is committed to improving health and health equity in the United States. In partnership with others, we are working to develop a Culture of Health rooted in equity that provides every individual with a fair and just opportunity to thrive, no matter who they are, where they live, or how much money they have.