Robert K. Ross Interview as Honoree for Partners’ “Lifetime Achievement Award”

Part One: “The best of what America can be”

Award winner is devoted to equity in health care.

While Robert K. Ross, MD, will be pleased to accept Partners in Care Foundations’ Lifetime Achievement Award, he’s quick to spread credit for his success and that of The California Endowment.

“Awards of this type and particularly coming from Partners in Care Foundation are flattering and humbling,” said Dr. Ross, President and CEO of The California Endowment. “It means a great deal, but I also keep it in perspective. Running a private health foundation, particularly one that focuses on the underserved, we’re not doing the heavy lifting. We fund organizations that are in the trenches fighting for health equity and we try to support what they do.

“My job is to assure that we’re funding organizations that need to benefit from our resources and then sign the check and get out of the way. It feels weird getting honored. But that said, the last couple of decades of our work have focused on racial equity, on health equity, on the social determinants of health – all of which now are better positioned within health policy and health systems reform. So I do feel quite good about that.”

Dr. Ross will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at Partners’ 23rd Annual Tribute Dinner in June 2023, in recognition of his leadership of The California Endowment, which makes grants to organizations and institutions that directly benefit the health and well-being of the people of California.

“The selection reflects Dr. Ross’s role in supporting the vision of transforming underserved communities and supporting grassroots leaders for a healthier California and a healthier America,” said Partners’ President and CEO June Simmons.

During his tenure as President and CEO at The California Endowment, the foundation has provided advocacy and funded efforts in support of “Health for All” across the state. This has resulted in expanding health coverage for undocumented residents, farmworkers, and “Dreamers,” strengthening diversity in the health workforce, advancing wellness-driven school climate reforms, improving health advocacy for young men and young women of color, and providing leadership for health-oriented criminal justice reform.

When asked what about his years at The California Endowment makes him most proud, Dr. Ross referred to his favorite Irish poet, David Whyte.

“A theme of his writings is engagement and authentic listening as a leadership tool,” said Dr. Ross, 68. “ Listening to those whose stories are often not told or heard is important. We listen to the experiences of those who suffer from health injustice and make them the experts in terms of how our investments should occur. We’ve had major statewide policy strategies that we’ve invested in that were shaped by those who suffer from health injustice and racial inequality. I’m proud of that. I’ll be leaving at the end of 2024, and I hope  that spirit and ethos is maintained at The California Endowment.”

The California Endowment focuses its strategy on what Dr. Ross describe as three “bold ideas”:

• People power – Developing young and adult leaders to work intergenerationally to raise up the voice of marginalized communities and promote greater civic activism as essential building blocks for an inclusive, equitably prosperous California.

• Reimagined public institutions – Transforming our public institutions to become significant investors in, and champions of, racial and social equity, and in the healthy development and success of young people for generations to come.

• A 21st century “Health for All” system – Ensuring prevention, community wellness, and access to quality health care for all Californians.

Dr. Ross said the foundation’s role in philanthropy has changed in three major ways since he came to The California Endowment in 2000.

“One is that over the last 15 to 18 years, we’ve been focusing on a broader definition of health as a community enterprise and not just as a clinical enterprise,” he said.

“Secondly, we’ve been investing more in policy and systems change and advocacy work. When I got to the foundation, fewer than 10% of our grants were going into advocacy and systems change and policy change. That’s flipped and now probably 80 to 90% of the grants we make are investing in policy advocacy and community activism around health and advancing health equity.

“Thirdly, we’re broadening our impact beyond the grants that we make, trying to be a more visible actor and advocate using our brand, using our reputation, using our communications platform, to speak up and assert a voice around health equity.”

Dr. Ross used an example close to his heart to impart the meaning of equity.

“I remember taking my daughter to see the Nutcracker during the holiday season,” he said. “The theater offered booster seats for toddlers and little kids so they could see. That’s an example of equity. Because if we all sit in the same equal seats, the children wouldn’t be able to see over the person in front of them.

“Health equity, in simple terms, is meeting communities and patients where they are in terms of their needs to achieve wellness. For example, leaders wanted to make the COVID vaccine available to everyone, so that everyone would be protected. But making that a reality requires an equity approach.

“As it relates to communities of color, you have to take into account the history of mistrust and distrust between communities of color and the government around healthcare and vaccines and treatment modalities. And then you’ve got the issue of access to primary care and vaccine care in communities. In immigrant communities and other communities of color, you have language issues.

“So an equity approach means determining what is required to advance wellness for a particular community or a particular population or a particular patient, more than likely, that’s not the same in all families and in all communities.”

An equity approach should be part of all healthcare delivery, Dr. Ross said, whether it’s COVID vaccines, diabetes management, asthma management or stroke prevention and care.

“The Endowment is all in on the matter of health equity and the social determinants of health,” he said. “We’ve long understood that there are a number of injustices in our healthcare system that need to be addressed. Who’s at the low end of health disparities and health equity? What does a community or neighborhood need to optimize the conditions under which they can become healthy? How do we make that population or those communities the highest priority for our work and for our investment? How do we take a structural and systems approach to addressing health disparities? This requires a fair amount of policy advocacy and systems change.”

“That’s the focus of our work – strengthening the voice, the advocacy and the power of grassroots activism so communities can improve their own health conditions.”

Dr. Ross said the foundation’s overall strategy can be summed up as ABC.

“A – stands for agency, investing in the voice and power and empowering agency of grassroots communities to determine their own health future,” he said. “B – stands for belonging – full, unapologetic and complete inclusion, nobody left out, be they people coming out of prison, be they farm workers and immigrant populations and communities, be they LGBTQ communities and populations.

“When you invest in their agency and you invest in the spirit of belonging, you get C, which is change. We see positive change. It’s not just a strategic upside, but dare I say, moral and spiritual upside to our work. We’ve seen the best of what America can be in our work.”

For more information about The California Endowment, visit

Presentation of Dr. Ross’s Vision & Excellence in Healthcare Leadership Award will take place at Partners’ 23rd Annual Tribute Dinner on Monday, June 12, 2023. To learn more about this event, register to attend the event, or sign up as a sponsor, please visit Partners’ 2023 Annual Tribute Dinner.

Partners in Care Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in San Fernando. Its mission is to shape the evolving health system by developing and spreading high-value models of community-based care and self-management for diverse populations with chronic conditions.