Behind a Long Push to Bring More Diversity to the Ranks of Healthcare Policy Wonks

Another day, another story about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's mission to promote a culture of health. But wait! There's a good reason for our extensive coverage. Part of why we find ourselves talking about RWJF grants so often is that the healthcare funding behemoth is doling out copious amounts of money to attack a giant problem from many angles. There's a lot to write about here. 

RWJF is casting a wide net to find creative solutions to improve health in America. From research to neighborhood programs to tech start ups, the grantmaking encompasses a variety of sectors working toward a common goal. Along the way, though, RWJF has kept an eye on the challenge of nurturing greater diversity among those working in healthcare research and policy. It's no secret that the academic and policy worlds are very white. According to the National Science Foundation, African Americans accounted for 6.4 percent of U.S. doctorates awarded in 2014, while Latinos made up 6.5 percent. This lack of diversity is a serious problem, particularly in fields grappling with complex socioeconomic problems that disproportionately affect communities of color. 

Ten years ago, RWJF launched New Connections to support minority and low-income scholars in health and healthcare research. The program has invested over $9 million to help more than 830 individuals with less than 15 years of post-grad experience. In addition to grant money for research, New Connections offers mentorship, community, and career development for its scholars, many of whom benefit from guidance in areas such as reaching tenure, getting published, and writing grant applications.

The program's Deputy Director Lisa Aponte-Soto told Inside Philanthropy that minorities in academia have a harder time receiving the recognition they deserve. She recounted stories from New Connections scholars who showed up to teach a class and were mistaken for students or janitors. "Academia is sort of an intense and rigorous environment, but they have those additional challenges of feeling like they're never good enough or that their work is never good enough and it makes it more difficult to advance," Aponte-Soto said.

As New Connections celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, the program is making some minor changes to expand its reach and test out what Aponte-Soto calls a "rapid-response process." So instead of a two-year, $100,000 grant mechanism, New Connections will give out 17 to 18 grants of up to $50,000 for a one-year grant period. Recognizing that improvements in public health come from many sectors, the program will also be opened beyond the traditional health care field to other disciplines such as urban planning, architecture, and business.

The application process is set to launch on March 2 with an April 27 deadline, and a March 23 webinar will offer details for potential applicants. Eligible scholars must hail from low-income communities and be first-time RWJF grant recipients, ethnic or racial minorities, and first-generation college grads. Scholars who go through the New Connections program are more likely to be awarded grants from the foundation's other funding mechanisms.

We wrote about the shake up in health care philanthropy when RWJF shuttered existing programs in 2014 to shift focus toward advancing a culture of health. Last year, we took a look at the foundation's progress and noted the importance of its commitment to cross-sector collaboration. One thread in our coverage is that RWJF values investment in human capital. With 10 years and counting of financial support for New Connections to bring in unique perspectives, the foundation is putting its money where its mouth is.