Building a Culture of Health for America is contingent on cultivating a diverse and inclusive community of faculty and researchers. Yet, when one extrapolates from data in a 2015 article in the Digest of Education Statistics, faculty of color represent only one in five of all full-time academics.
Recognizing the need to diversify and enrich perspectives in health and health care programming, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) founded New Connections, a program for junior and midcareer scholars from historically underrepresented backgrounds.
The RWJF launched New Connections in 2005 with a three-year, $2.2 million grant. Since the inception of New Connections, the RWJF has invested approximately $20 million in funding for its program services and operations, and nearly $10 million in its research awards. New Connections has partnered with the RWJF’s Healthy Eating Research program (2007–present), Public Health Law Research program (2010–2017), and Active Living Research program (2008–2013) to extend additional grant opportunities. The New Connections program releases an annual call for proposals.
Over the past ten years, New Connections has funded 137 junior and midcareer investigators attending to the most current health issues. Funded scholars use asset-based approaches, which place the voices of communities at the forefront, contribute to equitable health policies and practices, and improve health outcomes. Scholarly contributions promote healthy communities spanning geographic regions and localities in the United States.
Health disparities are avoidable, and can be substantially narrowed with culturally tailored interventions. The RWJF acknowledges that promoting a Culture of Health requires cross-cultural, interdisciplinary perspectives. Thus, New Connections engages a network of scholars who are from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group, from a low-income background, and/or the first to attend college in their family. Additionally, the program serves scholars trained in social and behavioral sciences, including public health, medicine, psychology, social work, and sociology, as well as those in architecture, business, engineering, and urban planning, whose work intersects with health.
Grantees attend to an array of research topics, including mental and emotional wellness, the built environment and obesity prevention, neighborhood safety, violence prevention, and substance abuse prevention. In addition, scholars’ research emphasizes the provision of equitable health care access and delivery, in such areas as patient–provider interactions, health care coverage, and health technology. The program has also awarded funding for studies on workforce diversity, equity and inclusion, and pipeline development for health care programs.
New Connections understands that faculty from underrepresented backgrounds—particularly early career scholars—encounter unique challenges navigating “the academy.” Therefore, the program focuses on fostering the growth of a diverse talent pool in the academy by investing in the career development of junior (0-10 years of experience after a doctoral degree) and mid-career (10-15 years of experience since completion of their most recent graduate degree) investigators through skill-building workshops, mentoring, and networking. More than 800 scholars have received network career services. By participating in our annual Symposium and/or Research and Coaching Clinic, participants can develop relationships with other researchers with common interests and, subsequently, collaborate on projects.
New Connections partners with seasoned researchers to serve as mentors and workshop facilitators for professional development opportunities, including in-person sessions and webinars focusing on methodology, grant writing, manuscript preparation, and leadership development, as well as “speed mentoring” sessions (where New Connections scholars spend short amounts of time meeting with senior scholars who provide mentorship and career advice).
The program also collaborates with senior administrators at academic institutions to elevate the discourse on the institutional impact of scholars from underrepresented backgrounds. A main component of these discussions is the identification and implementation of support systems that position scholars to succeed and champion the next generation of scholars influencing health and health care policy and practice. Thus, New Connections serves as a vehicle for building and sustaining the pipeline of minority faculty whose research is critical for promoting healthy communities.
In 2016, New Connections is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a year-long campaign, “Equity. Contribution. Community: New Connections at 10.” The campaign will focus on the impact our scholars have made in their professions and, through New Connections-funded research, in the communities they serve.
The RWJF New Connections program helps build upon the strengths and assets of underrepresented scholars who in turn, through their research, serve as change agents by imparting innovative solutions to complex health problems and thus help build a Culture of Health.