Selected Speeches

Anchor Institutions Task Force Annual Meeting

Oct. 30, 2015
Marriott East Side, New York City


Good afternoon. I’m delighted to be here among so many people so powerfully committed to the idea that—working with our partners and our neighbors—we can transform communities and, indeed, entire cities. I share your optimism and your effort.

I was deeply honored to be asked by Dr. Harkavy and Dr. Maurrasse to moderate this panel.

I’m joined by four national leaders who can speak compellingly to what works in improving community health:

  • Ms. Debbie Chang, Enterprise Vice President for Policy and Prevention at Nemours Children’s Health System;
  • Dr. Pedro Greer, Associate Dean for Community Engagement and Chair of the Department of Medicine, Family Medicine & Community Health at Florida International University;
  • Ms. Diane Jones, Vice President for Healthy Communities at Catholic Health Initiatives;
  • Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom, Senior Vice President for Community Health & Equity, and Chief Wellness Officer at Henry Ford Health System.

Before we get into the presentations, I’d like to briefly frame the issue of community health. And I think it’s appropriate to start with a line that many of you here know well—one that roots our work in common goals and common language.

It’s a statement published in 2010 by one of our conference sponsors, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: “Scientists have found that the conditions in which we live and work have an enormous impact on our health, long before we ever see a doctor. It’s time we expand the way we think about health to include how to keep it—not just how to get it back.

We must consider part of that first sentence—the “conditions in which we live and work.” We know that these conditions are often bleak—often deplorable—for many of our neighbors. And these are the conditions that perpetuate grave health disparities among populations.

We know that living in a home with no electricity or in a neighborhood miles from the nearest grocery store has as much to do with our health as our biology and behavior. And we know that many of the people we serve are denied those things we consider critical to basic well-being: steady jobs and economic stability; personal and public safety; quality education; reliable housing and transportation; access to nutritious foods and exercise, to social supports, and to adequate health care.

I live and work in Baltimore. My University sits about two miles from the corner where Freddie Gray was arrested last spring. He later died in our Shock Trauma Center.

But long before his death—and the outrage that followed on the streets of Baltimore—Freddie Gray was a young boy growing up in a home with lead paint peeling off the walls. It was especially bad in the room where he slept. Freddie and his two sisters had damaging levels of lead in their blood, contributing to academic problems, behavioral problems, health problems.

These are the conditions we’re talking about. These are the people we’re talking about.

Of course health anchors must provide direct care to populations in need, but we must keep in mind that the access we work for isn’t just after-the-fact access to doctors and medications. It’s access to those things that keep people from getting sick in the first place.

Our panelists will share the creative and collaborative ways they influence the social determinants of health; how they target populations and scale projects to meet their scope of need; how they adjust policy and practice to achieve the outcomes they want; and how they forge partnerships with agencies and organizations to do more together than they could possibly do alone.

To the point of partnership, I have one example of my own. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore, we’re working in five city schools—all within one neighborhood—providing a continuum of cradle-to-career supports for children and families. This project, called Promise Heights, has more than 50 partners.

With the city health department and the Family League of Baltimore, we knock on neighborhood doors to find pregnant women needing prenatal care. With the United Way of Central Maryland, we work to reduce the high mobility rate among poor families—often running interference with landlords.

Congregants of a nearby church tutor the children in reading. The Breathmobile, run by our children’s hospital, stops by to treat the many schoolchildren—too many—suffering from asthma. Our nursing students organize parties that bring parents and children together in learning about health.

Our dental students examine children’s teeth. Our law students help residents with small claims. Our social workers help children process the trauma they experience every day—and ultimately break the cycle of violence.

But as noble as these efforts sound, we know this work isn’t only in the best interest of our communities; it’s in our own self-interest, as well.

As anchor institutions, we need our neighborhoods to be safe and inviting to the talent we hope to attract. And that will happen only if our neighbors are healthy, socially connected, and economically secure.

We also need a robust community of clients for the services we provide—education and health care. And we need a supportive environment that allows us to do our best work.

So with that nod to “doing our best work,” I’d like to segue to our panel.

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