Transparency and accountability about RWJF’s historical legacy are key to the Foundation’s equity journey.
Three Black patients lean on a Black healthcare worker, finding support and comfort in representation. Silhouettes of healthcare settings appear in the background. Photo credit: Ameya Okamoto
We all want to live in a country that values and recognizes the dreams we have for our families. But for too long, our nation has placed value on some lives more than others based on race, class, gender, disability, sexual orientation, country of origin, among other factors. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been committed to advancing health equity for more than 50 years. To continue our efforts to dismantle the barriers to opportunities for health, we need to look critically at our legacy as an organization—including our actions and inaction over the years.
Poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote: “Through examining the combination of our triumphs and errors, we can examine the dangers of an incomplete vision. Not to condemn that vision but to alter it, construct templates for possible futures.” Inspired by these words, and working with our colleagues across the Foundation, RWJF’s new Equity and Culture team is charting a path for the Foundation by embarking on a process of truth, repair, and transformation to hold ourselves accountable to the commitment we have made: to dismantle structural racism and other barriers to health so that everyone has the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible.
RWJF’s Truth, Repair and Transformation (TRT) process builds on our work over the years to more deeply address the root causes of health disparities by more explicitly focusing on truth-telling, repair, and accountability as necessary conditions for sustaining change that leads to health equity and justice. Our TRT process is also part of a broader philanthropic shift over the past decade that includes philanthropy’s efforts to reckon with and repair the sector’s role in historical disinvestment in communities most impacted by structural inequities, and to root funder-grantee relationships more deeply in mutual learning and trust.
As part of this effort, we are looking closely at RWJF’s past so that we can continue to explore opportunities to change our approach and meet our mission on today’s terms. This includes doubling down on positive steps the Foundation has already taken that rectify historical injustices and advance health equity while divesting from those that don’t.
Where We Are Now: Truth, Repair and Transformation
Since our inception, RWJF has made a positive impact on health in America through research, leadership development, signature programming, and cross-sector partnerships. But like many philanthropies, and as noted by groups like Liberation Ventures and The Bridgespan Group, we also have work to do to understand and repair what role we may have played in perpetuating inequities in healthcare, like structural racism.
In the two generations that we have been working with our partners across the nation, there has not been enough change in terms of the unfair and unequal treatment of people of color and other marginalized groups in health and healthcare; racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination continue to be barriers to everyone in America having access to health as a right and not a privilege.
This past spring, RWJF convened a health equity summit where we announced we would begin our TRT process—an essential step on our journey to health equity and justice. The official process recently began through the creation of a taskforce I co-chair with Maisha Simmons, assistant vice president, Equity and Culture. The RWJF Truth, Repair and Transformation taskforce will engage staff, trustees, and partners to understand the Foundation’s legacy as a health philanthropy, including learning from and accelerating practices that have advanced our mission while rectifying those that haven’t.
Over the next three years, working groups will explore six areas to anchor this process in collective accountability to communities closest to health inequities, with a focus on engaging internal and external constituents in research, learning, and dialogue on RWJF’s legacy and impact in 2024.
RWJF’s Origin Story: Examine and broaden the narratives that have been central to the Foundation’s formation and early work, including the origins of our wealth.
Signature Programs and Grantmaking: Understand how our grantmaking and decisionmaking have impacted marginalized communities and adjust our practices and programs where necessary to better align with our mission.
Healthcare: Understand our role and impact on trends and practices in healthcare, particularly those that perpetuate structural racism, and adjust our practices and programs where necessary to more effectively dismantle barriers to health.
Endowment Investments: Analyze how past and current investments and decisionmaking have affected marginalized communities.
New Jersey: Examine the Foundation’s legacy and ongoing impact in our home state.
Internal Culture: Align our internal culture and operations with our deepening approach to driving health equity and serving communities at the heart of our mission.
Where We Are Going: RWJF’s Evolving Equity Transformation
Amidst a noticeable retreat of support for equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) efforts in powerful legacy institutions and the challenge of attempting to shift our own philanthropy, our work is to maintain momentum for transformation so that we acknowledge, learn from, and do not repeat any past missteps. The racial reckoning of 2020 and the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on marginalized communities accelerated our focus to address structural racism, but our work will not and should not stop there.
Our team will continue to deepen its focus on equity goals across all areas of RWJF’s work as meeting our mission requires holding a mirror up to our own practices as a health philanthropy. In 2024, we will share more about other aspects of our equity transformation work as well as the TRT process, along with the partners collaborating with us.
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to lead this talented team and to work with wonderful colleagues and partners across and beyond RWJF as we continue to advance equity and justice. We know our efforts will continue to evolve, but I am excited about the possibilities for even deeper impact that Truth, Repair and Transformation offer as we move forward.