Honoring Unsung Heroes in Communities Across America: Building Connections to Forge Solutions

The Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leaders program, which ran between 1991 and 2015, honored 207 unsung and unusually resourceful people working in communities to improve health and access to care for underserved, and often disenfranchised populations.

These leaders are living proof that some of the most innovative and practical solutions for improving health aren’t always found in hospitals and health clinics. Through passion, creativity, and hard work, they advanced health in communities across the country. —Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, RWJF President and CEO

What these grassroots leaders shared was a broad view of what constituted health and a powerful commitment to social justice. Where health care was not available to people because of age or poverty or class, they sought to bring it. Where the circumstances of peoples’ lives, environments, and behaviors were leading to health problems, they sought to address those issues. They are true innovators and, in many ways, are key forerunners of the Culture of Health that RWJF is committed to promoting.

We can learn much from these leaders about the nature of leadership, the power of community action, and the pathways to real change in the face of the many problems in American communities. Many leaders even channeled their own adverse experiences into community work; by empowering themselves, they also empowered others.

Viewing health care through a community lens, the leaders prescribed specific social and political remedies to improve health, community, and democracy.             

Though the Community Health Leaders program in no way “created” leaders, RWJF hoped that the award would shine a light on their ability to lead their communities toward greater health. The last group of Community Health Leaders was selected in 2012, and the program office closed at the end of 2014.