The California Endowment president Dr. Robert K. Ross

Dr. Ross, a longtime advocate for children’s health, weighs in on healthcare issues in the U.S., particularly for boys and young men of color.

A strong advocate on children's health issues, Dr. Robert K. Ross is president and CEO of The California Endowment, one of the largest foundations in the U.S. focusing on advancing multicultural health issues. He previously served as the HHS Agency director for San Diego County and the City of Philadelphia's public health commissioner and has been actively involved in community and professional activities at the local and national levels, including his role as Diplomat of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Ross has an extensive background as a clinician and received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
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Tavis: Dr. Robert Ross is the president and CEO of The California Endowment. Prior to his time in Cal Endow, he was the director of health and human services agency in San Diego County. Dr. Ross, good to have you on this program.

Dr. Robert Ross: Thank you, Tavis; it’s good to see you.

Tavis: Good to see you. There’s so many things I want to talk to you about. I think I want to start, though, with what I learned this summer when I called your office on one occasion looking for you, and they told me that you had taken a three-month – this is the president of The California Endowment – taking a three-month sabbatical, not to go rest and relax but to do some work on something that was obviously important to you, about the crisis involving Black boys, Brown boys.

Ross: Yes.

Tavis: Tell me more about why you took that time off and what you hoped to learn during your sabbatical.

Ross: Yeah, thank you, Tavis, for inviting me to talk about this. At the age of 58, I’ve seen a lot of things happen in this country. The Obama presidency was certainly a memorable moment for me, an occasion.

But the one issue that continues to haunt me as an African American father, as a husband, as a physician, as an executive, as a professional, as a citizen, is what’s happening to too many of our young men.

The rates of incarceration, the high school dropout rates, the homicide rates, the joblessness, the unemployment, the hopelessness continues to haunt me, and I want to just spend some time on that issue and no other issue.

So I took three months to talk to – I intended to talk to 25 or 30 people, ended up talking to 60 people, including yourself, about what’s happening to our young men and what needs to happen to save them.

Tavis: Yeah. I get why it’s an issue that matters to you, but even though the crisis is deepening, I think there are a lot of citizens, to use your word, a lot of us in the demos who don’t understand why it ought to matter to us. So why should it matter to us?

Ross: Well, one of the interviewees I spoke to put it very well. Angela Glover Blackwell from PolicyLink.

Tavis: Sure.

Ross: She views the issue or the crisis of what’s happening to young Black men as a canary in the mine for a broader cohort of young people in this country, of the underserved, the vulnerable, those that are in poverty, that if we can make amends and make things right with what’s happening to young Black men, their poverty, their hopelessness, their opportunity, then we can level the playing field for other populations as well.

So for example, reforming our criminal justice system, where so many of our young men are trapped. If we can get a criminal justice system that works for African American men, it can work for women; it can work for other young folks of color.

We are spending far too much money in putting people away and incarceration in this country. So that is one example where policy and practice reforms that benefit African American young men would also benefit broader Americans and our population more broadly.

Tavis: What gives you reason to believe – I hear the point that Angela’s making, but what gives you reason to believe that African American men, African American boys, whatever be the benchmark, or put another way, the high-water mark for what society ought to be doing? Because that requires a level of empathy – you know where I’m going with this.

Ross: And a leap of faith.

Tavis: And a leap of faith, exactly, so what’s the reason to ever believe that that would be the modus operandi or the rationale?

Ross: It’s a great – I’m not sure there is, even in our post, allegedly post-racial America. I do think that what I found, I spoke mostly to Black and Brown individuals. Not exclusively, not entirely. There’s a level of frustration, a level of worry, a level of anxiety, even a level of outrage around what’s happening to young Black men.

But I think it’s reaching a tipping point. It comes in fits and starts. It started – the Million Man March, I think, was the first very early, robust indication that something must be done. Mixed reviews about the kind of impact and lasting impact that had.

I think your work with the Covenant, the Covenant in Action for Black America, another wave of activity. I think we need, we’ve reached a point where we must have a more strategic, comprehensive discipline, all-hands-on-deck approach.

I think the moment is now. I’m seeing in the world of philanthropy, interesting, which is the last place I would expect it to come from, because philanthropy really is a very white, elite-dominated world. It has been and continues to be.

But in my 90-day deep dive into this I found 17, 18 foundations around the country that have focused interventions targeting African American young men, which surprised me. I didn’t realize that my colleagues in the field were actually investing these level of dollars.

Some of them are investing a lot of dollars. Many of them, just a program here and there. But that’s an unprecedented wave of activity in the world of philanthropy on investing in this issue, and maybe there’s a hope that that interest is beginning to catch on.

Tavis: You’ve said a few things now I want to go back and get you to unpack for me. In no particular order, I’m going to jump away and I’ll come back in a moment to the issue of Black boys and Brown boys in this country.

You said a moment ago that the world of philanthropy is a white, elite arena, and it is, except for Robert Ross, who is the president and CEO of The California Endowment.

Let me just detour right quick and ask how did that happen? I want to talk more about what philanthropy is doing on the issue, but tell me more about your story. How did you end up, this Black man that you are, the head of a major California endowment, national endowment, for that matter?

Ross: Well, I think you know something about this. I think for all of us, it’s about hard work and fortune, and the Lord has been good. I think for me, my experience in Philadelphia, running the Philadelphia public health department, and then later in San Diego, put me on the radar screen as someone who cared about underserved communities, wanted to do something more strategic and impactful about them.

Somehow, someone noticed my work in these public health departments and brought me to the attention of The California Endowment. Their board of directors interviewed me in 2000 and decided to take a chance and hire me. What I found is that there are a number of folks like me in this field, many of them at lower levels of the organization, not as CEO, not as president, not as senior vice president.

But for example, the Open Society Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the George Soros Foundation, has done a lot of fabulous work on the issue of Black male achievement, and most of that work is led by two junior-level program managers, African American men, not vice presidents, not CEOs, but they’re just doing good, solid, capable work at that level of the organization, fully supported by George Soros.

So it’s just a reminder that no matter where you are in the organization, if you think you can make a difference, that’s the first place to start. If you think you can’t make a difference, then you won’t make a difference. But those young men are showing that even a major foundation can invest major resources in Black men, and actually, they have provided a lot of the leadership on this issue.

Tavis: So now back to this other question, which is what’s happening vis-à-vis the crisis that’s gotten the attention of philanthropy, where government and other institutions are lagging behind. We’ll come back to that as well.

Ross: Sure.

Tavis: But what’s happening that’s making, to your point, your colleagues take notice of the crisis that young Black and Brown boys are enduring?

Ross: Well, it’s being framed by the lens of what’s causing the problem. If you think about, if you take a step back, right now we have an incarceration superhighway for our young men.

Tavis: Right.

Ross: We are actually manufacturing inmates for the criminal justice system, and Michelle Alexander’s book lays this out perfectly (unintelligible) –

Tavis: “The New Jim Crow,” yeah.

Ross: “The New Jim Crow.”

Tavis: Yeah.

Ross: So from my vantage point, the strategic way to come at it is to disassemble that superhighway, right? The on-ramps to that superhighway are schools. There is a school-to-prison pipeline.

Tavis: Okay.

Ross: We now know from a data perspective young men who are chronically absent, African American young men who are chronically absent or not reading at their grade level or suspended from school multiple times are basically waving a red flag saying, “I’m going to prison unless you help me.” They are telling us that they’re on that superhighway, and the system is not responding quickly enough.

So one of the things we can do is invest in upstream practices and strategies so that a young man – number one, stop the policies. Stop kicking our young men out of school. If you’re going to suspend them, suspend them in school. Unless they’re selling heroin or bringing an automatic weapon to school, that may be another reason, not that he doesn’t need help, either.

But suspend a young man in school and then make sure that we’re surrounding them with the kinds of mentoring, summer job opportunities, maybe extra reading support that that young person needs. So that’s one thing we need to do, and I think philanthropy can do that.

What are the upstream, community-level partnerships to make sure that we’re surrounding and embracing these young men, bringing them into the fold, instead of pushing them out of school, out into the street, and out into gangs and other kinds of behavior?

Tavis: Even though you run a philanthropic organization, you know full well the difference between justice and charity, between justice and philanthropy. Is what you’re witnessing now in the world of philanthropy on this issue, is it ultimately about trying to do their part to get at justice, some social justice, or is this about feeling sorry for these Black boys and Brown boys, is this about charity? Does that make sense?

Ross: The question makes perfect sense. What we’re at now is we’re at a point in the world of philanthropy, we need to make a decision whether we’re about charity or about justice.

Now, a lot of folks don’t want us in the justice world. You know that old expression of if you feed someone who is hungry, if you feed a homeless person, you’re celebrated, right? If you ask why there are so many homeless people, you’re condemned. All of a sudden you’re a communist; you’re a socialist for saying, “Why do we have so many homeless people in the first place.”

Philanthropy should be asking those questions about justice. It’s not just giving to a Big Brothers and Big Sisters program because you feel sorry for those young people. It’s an investment in that young person because that young person really does represent the future of this country, A; B, it’s a smarter investment; C, what is it that we’re doing here in this country that we have such an unequal playing field, and how can we feel good about ourselves and look at ourselves in the mirror.

That’s why I wanted to take this three months of time. I just felt I couldn’t look myself in the mirror any longer about what was happening to these young men without probing and asking these questions, and ultimately, what should we in the world of philanthropy be doing about it. Where should we be making our investments?

Tavis: So I hear your point about why so many philanthropic organizations want to do the charity, they want to do the righteous work, they don’t want to get into social justice work. What keeps them from asking those questions, from getting into that kind of justice work? Where and why is that line in the sand drawn?

Ross: Risk. Risk. There is brand and reputational risk at an institutional level and in the world of philanthropy when you begin asking questions that are justice questions, that are advocacy questions, that are social justice questions.

You’ve been criticized for asking some tough questions about the world of poverty, for example. So these are the kinds of – once you decide that you are going into advocacy and social justice issues, the dismantling of the incarceration superhighway, a lot of folks get threatened.

They say, well, wait a minute, there’s plenty for you to do, there’s plenty of homeless people. Why don’t you house them? There’s plenty of people who are hungry, why don’t you give to the food banks?

That’s good charity, and I’m not criticizing that charity, but some of us need to be working on the social justice aspect. How do we get into these issues upstream so there are no homeless people in the first place, so we don’t have millions and millions of African American men being carted off to the incarceration superhighway in the first place?

That’s where I think we need to be asking our questions, is what’s going on upstream.

Tavis: You mentioned President Barack Obama at the top of this conversation. Let me circle now back to him and ask you two specific questions about him. Actually, one question about him and one question about his policies, because Obamacare now is about to kick in and I want to talk to you as the head of a foundation about what your read on that is in the coming months and years.

But first, since we’re talking about Black boys, we all know the Trayvon Martin well. President Obama steps up and says, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” People dissected and deconstructed that comment 18 million different ways.

But I was reading a piece the other day about the fact that the president has yet to say as president the prison industrial complex. Reagan wouldn’t say HIV/AIDS, Bush wouldn’t say – Bush Jr. – I guess daddy too, but certainly Bush Jr. wouldn’t say climate change.

So Reagan wouldn’t say “HIV/AIDS,” Bush wouldn’t say “climate change.” Will Barack Obama ever say “prison industrial complex?”

Ross: I don’t know, it remains to be seen, although I do think that a second-term President Obama now has a moment in front of him, and I hope he chooses to seize that moment, about what’s happening to vulnerable populations in general, but African American boys and young men in particular, and I’m sure people have a long wish list of things they want the president to take up.

Tavis: Indeed, yeah.

Ross: Because of the Trayvon Martin case and his comment, which was a rare moment for him to say, you know what, that could have been my son, I hope that signals something deeper in him that he really wants to spend some portion of his time in the White House dealing with the issue.

I can say as one philanthropic executive, I think the world of philanthropy would rally around him if he were to put that on the table as something he wants to do something about. There are ways to get at the issue. There are practices that work.

For example, back to the school discipline issue, there are schools that demonstrated in Oakland, in Los Angeles, in Detroit, in Fresno, that you can keep kids in school, get rid of the suspension policies, and not only improve test scores but improve graduation rates, reduce dropout rates, and reduce school acts of violence.

There are schools in San Francisco using meditative practices, contemplative practices, restorative justice practices. There are all kinds of alternative practices that make sense for schools, make sense for the kids, that can help veer and turn the tide on the incarceration superhighway, but it does take leadership to get there.

That’s leadership at the local community level, but it’s also leadership in the White House, it’s leadership in Congress, it’s leadership in our civil rights organizations.

Tavis: I’m not naïve in asking this, Doc, but it always has been strange to me that where this issue and other issues are concerned, but for this conversation, this issue of Black and Brown youth, Black boys in particular, where this issue is concerned we either pay on the front end or the back end, so that much of the great work that Cal Endow is doing and other philanthropic organizations are doing is spending money on problems that if we address them differently on the front end, your money might be spent differently on –

Ross: Save massively, yes.

Tavis: – save massively on the back end. Which raises the question why it is on this particular issue that philanthropy is ahead of good government policy, or more of it, certainly.

Ross: That’s the business we should be in. We should be about the business of ideas, of problem-solving ideas. I think for us it’s very easy. We live in a relatively apolitical world. We’re driven by data and practices, even if it’s for a social justice cause.

So for us it’s very clear that for example, Homeboy Industries, which spends about $6,000 to $8,000 per young person per year that they’re trying to keep out of gangs and keep out of the streets and then get into a job, well, $5,000 to $6,000, $8,000 per year invested in that young person at that particular program is manifold the savings if that young person ends up in prison in the juvenile hall at $120,000 a year or incarcerated at $55,000 to $60,000 a year.

So for us, it’s a no-brainer. Politically, the prison complex, man, folks are now making money, for-profit prison industry, right? The Correctional Officers Union in the state of California, prison workers union, a very strong lobby. Maybe the last thing you want to see is a bunch of folks leaving prison and going out into community-based programs.

So one of the things that we need to do in social justice philanthropy is think about the practice, the innovation, the dollars that are saved, but also the political strategy. How do you rally the voices to deal with speaking truth to power? Because you’re going to need those voices, you’re going to need that community support; you’re going to need that political advocacy to get at the power dynamic.

Because these young people, I’m telling you, man, they are angry. They know that there is a school-to-prison pipeline. They know that for example, school discipline policies, which stigmatize and criminalize and marginalize young men, is the portal to the incarceration superhighway and the prisons.

They get that, they understand that, and now they’re beginning to exert their voice in the state of California, and we’re happy to see that.

Tavis: To your point now, tell me more from your perspective about why – I want to talk specifically about our community, the African American community – why the agency that we have has not been exercised in full pursuit of trying to get this problem righted?

If we really do in fact know what I think we know, and we know it not because we read books and data, we know it because we live it every day in our families, in our communities, we live this every day.

So we know the crisis that young Black boys are enduring, and yet at the level of the NAACP, at the level of the Urban League, a number of other organizations I could raise – I’m not raising their names to cast aspersion on them. I’m just saying there is nobody inside of the community that is rallying – you mentioned Michelle Alexander’s book.

The biggest thing that’s happened on this issue in years is a book to hit the best-seller list that stayed on for 40, 41 weeks, but even that hasn’t caused the kind of groundswell that one might hope it would have caused inside the Black community in particular.

Maybe some of that has to do with not wanting to make waves while there’s a Black man in the White House. I don’t know. You tell me.

Ross: Head-scratcher. My impression is that those of us that are in a position to give and to respond are too comfortable. I think many of us, Black men included, who’ve done well, drive the right car, have the nice home, we’ve moved out of the ‘hood, I think too many of us are too comfortable and too accepting and too desensitized to what’s happening to these young men.

The fact that the Black homicide rate is 17 times higher than the white homicide rate for Black boys, it’s atrocious. I can’t look in the mirror and live with that, and I’m not sure how our colleagues, Tavis, can.

So I think we need a policy strategy, which is why I kind of like the Covenant. It was a policy strategy and a policy agenda, where if you want to engage in political advocacy you can engage at that level, engaging Congress, engaging your city council, engaging your county board of supervisors.

But if you’re at the ground level, how do each one of us reach out and touch and respond to a young man that’s in juvenile hall? So one thing for example might be an organic way for all of us to pick one young man who’s in foster care or one young man who’s in juvenile hall and mentor that young man, and that’s what you do.

So I’m going to hold myself accountable and responsible to that. The question is can we come up with the kind of infrastructure, the connective tissue, so that each one of us does that, and how can we blame Obama for not doing what he should be doing in the White House if we are not stepping up ourselves? I think that’s the kind of ground-air campaign we’re going to need to change this structure.

Tavis: Speaking of Obama, let me come back to that other Obama question that I wanted to ask that I did not forget about, but it fits now, which is the notion of Obamacare.

More broadly speaking, you are the head of a major philanthropic entity. What’s your sense of what Obamacare is going to do now that – I shouldn’t say – I was going to say now that it’s pretty much etched in stone? The Republicans still could do something in the House, but had Mitt Romney won, he made it a vow to overturn it, so I think we’re past that at the moment. So what happens now that this thing starts to kick in?

Ross: Yeah, very clearly, the president’s singular achievement of his first term, for us, we think it’s a game-changer in terms of healthcare, potentially. It needs to be executed now at the state level, but the federal framework is there.

Some of the things that it does that are just – to make an existing healthcare system that was unfair and inaccessible right again, the issue of preexisting conditions, so people who had diabetes, who had asthma, who had epilepsy, and for years had been punished by the private health insurance industry, no longer had that barrier. They can still get health insurance. So that’s one thing.

If you’re up to the age of 26 years old, you can get on your parents’ health insurance coverage. They can bring you on, even if you’re married. The penalty where insurance companies would have lifetime caps on the amount of money they would spend on you given your health condition over a period of time, and then once you hit that lifetime cap they could drop you, they no longer have the ability to do that.

If you’re between, for a family of four making between $29,000 and $88,000 a year, you’re now eligible for subsidies to help you pay for insurance. So it’s really quite a stark, extraordinary change in the makeup of our healthcare system. We can now reduce the number of uninsured Americans from close to 50 million to down to 15 million or so, but it’s got to be executed.

Folks now, we need to educate folks and make sure that on January 1, 2014, a lot of these provisions will kick in. Some of them kick in now, but they’ve got to begin to learn about what’s in Obamacare. We now bear the responsibility for educating communities about Obamacare, the African American community in particular, Latino community in particular. They can benefit greatly from the provisions in this health reform law.

Tavis: Your foundation principally does work in building healthier communities. How is this – and I could have started our conversation here – but how is this crisis, to your mind, a matter of health?

Ross: Well, it’s a matter of wellness for sure. Our young people in the communities we serve, and older folks as well, are telling us we cannot have a healthy community if this young generation of people and these boys, young men, are left behind.

They need to be in the equation. They need to have opportunity. They need to be well enough to take advantage of opportunity. They need to be able to stay in school, they need to stay out of jail, and they need to stay out of gangs.

So we would not have – we think about diabetes, we think about obesity, we think about asthma. We would not have naturally thought about the crisis of Black men and boys as a health issue, but the communities we’re dealing with tell us, you need to make this a health issue and you need to work with us on this, and we’ve responded.

Tavis: They have responded indeed. Dr. Robert Ross is the president of The California Endowment. A delight, sir, to have you on this program. Thank you for your work.

Ross: Thank you, brother, appreciate you.

Tavis: Good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. You can download our app in the iTunes app store and I will see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: October 13, 2013 at 9:16 pm