Monica Hobbs Vinluan, Senior Program Officer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)
“We focus on drawing explicit connections between the economy and health. Positive health outcomes are being driven by, and determined by, income.”
What is the mission of your foundation and how does addressing economic equity and opportunity fit in?
Since 1972, RWJF has supported research and programs targeting some of America’s most pressing health issues—from childhood obesity to improving access to quality healthcare. We work to improve health, healthcare, and focus on building a culture of health, enabling all in the US to improve their health outcomes.
This might seem like a long way from economic opportunity, but our work begins with health and connects broadly. Too often good health is limited by where you live, your race, gender, and income.
The American Rescue Plan and economic transformation legislation that policymakers will consider this year marks a historic opportunity to build a stronger, more equitable economy and ensures everyone can thrive, no matter what we look like or where we come from. How are you shifting your strategies to meet this moment?
I wouldn’t say there’s been a change. We’ve always been focused on health equity and access. What’s shifted is the acute visibility of structural racism and the opening of an unprecedented policy window of opportunity. So, there’s a shift in our tactics and an urgency to ensure that funding flows in equitable ways.
When I think about how this looks at a tactical level, there are a couple of examples that come to mind. First, in our Healthy Communities area, there’s a moment of opportunity to focus on equitable community development. To make sure that funds flow in an equitable way and that community development includes individuals too, that it builds power and elevates voice.
Along similar lines, in our Healthy Children and Families area, it’s about making sure that children and families have the resources they need for children to grow up healthy. That means not only economic recovery, but economic inclusion and transformation—building an economy that serves children and families and is guided by their perspectives. How do we make sure families have the resources they need, taking a holistic approach to those needs?
What do you see as the big barriers you’re trying to overcome in your work?
Structural racism is embedded into all our systems, and we are at a moment of national reckoning. So, how we will respond and re-imagine the world moving forward?
We focus on drawing explicit connections between the economy and health. Between positive health outcomes being driven by, and determined by, economics.
Bringing the lens of the Healthy Children and Families portfolio, the focus is re-imagining an economy that centers on children and families, instead of defining their role only as a “worker.” We want to humanize the system, making sure our system supports people in different social and cultural roles (not only as workers). We want to build an economy that is aligned with our post-COVID understanding of what it means to be an “essential” worker and elevate and value to role of “caregivers.”
As you think through your portfolio/foundation’s work, what has been some of the work that you have been most proud of? What excites you?
Understanding what different families need—that these are individual and unique—is exciting to me. We’re trying to center this perspective and do so in an asset-based way by elevating the amazing role that caregivers play in the economy.
In our Shifting Mindsets and understanding work, we’ve conducted research over the last 2-years on what families need. What we found—and it’s still true today—is that every caregiver or parent wants their child to live a healthier life than they did, and this is the first generation where this may not be the case. Here we are elevating the role of caregivers (professional and familial) and their contributions to the economy. We are centering them, so that in addition to valuing their contributions, we are trying to make sure that childcare in all its forms is available and affordable.
The other work that comes to mind is around Policy—this is where the mindset work plays out. So, we’re focusing on how to use policy to catalyze transformation; and strengthen existing policy infrastructures. If we take just one example, like paid leave, the types of work that have access to paid leave are drawn on racial lines. So again, it connects economic opportunity and health.
How does participating in the EOF Network benefit your work?
We’re a health funder. At EOF, we benefit from the exposure to, and understanding of, economic issues, and ways of moving forward on an economic front. Being a member helps us push forward on our thinking and understanding and helps us to figure out how we can be additive to this work. The thought partnership makes us all better. It helps us advance our shared strategies in really positive ways.
Do you have any questions/issues on which you’d like to engage your funder colleagues? What keeps you up at night?
In wonderful and positive ways, so many funders are talking about racial equity. My question is how to operationalize it. How do we get from theory to practice? How do we gain traction and add value to closing the racial wealth gap? How do we support what’s working? How do we balance urgent responses and build for the future? We are beyond the moment to philosophize. This is the moment for action, so how do we make sure we get it right?
What’s something we didn’t think to ask, but you’d really like to share it with your funder colleagues?
RWJ is a large foundation. I don’t speak for the whole. I bring the lens of the work I engage in. There’s a whole other side of the foundation that works on transforming health and healthcare systems. Colleagues in that area would have answered the questions very differently, I’m sure. So, I’m giving you a snapshot of a piece of the work of the foundation. Not the whole picture.
Are there any resources you’d like to share with your funder colleagues?
- Why Building Black Wealth is Key to Health Equity
- Every Family Forward
- Health Policy in Brief: We support the translation of nonpartisan research and evidence into health policy briefs that strive to explain key policy issues in a concise, easily digestible format. Two that seem especially relevant:
Thank you so much Monica for your time and support of our network! If you’d like to reach out to Monica directly to learn more, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview was completed by Sarah Griffiths, consultant to Economic Opportunity Funders.