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

Part 1: “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.

Part 2 – ‘When it comes to your health, place matters’

A lifetime in public service began in an impoverished neighborhood. 

Robert K. Ross, MD, the recipient of the 2023 Partners in Care Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, mentions three great inspirations: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congressman John Lewis, and Dr. Helen Davies. 

“I’m a big admirer of Dr. King and Congressman Lewis, who described the beloved community, a nation that’s free of economic and racial and health exclusions,” said Dr. Ross, the President and CEO of The California Endowment, which makes grants to organizations and institutions that directly benefit the health and well-being of the people of California. 

“Going back to medical school, the person who had the greatest impact on my career path was a microbiology professor named Dr. Helen Davies. She just saw something in me, and I don’t know what it is that she saw, but she became a huge advocate and supporter of mine and a believer in my career path. 

“I remember having those moments in pre-med and in med school. You have doubts. Everyone has doubts, right? She held my hand through them and said, you’ve got the right stuff. She called me Bobby. She said, ‘Bobby, you can do this. You got it within you and go after it.’ I stayed in touch with her over the years and we became great friends. I would have never imagined that a five-foot-one-inch little Jewish lady would have an amazing impact on my career, but she did.” 

Dr. Ross grew up in a housing project in the South Bronx section of New York City. It wasn’t far from Yankee Stadium, but he said his family was surrounded by poverty and violence. 

“I remember asking myself, why is our neighborhood like this? I was being introduced to what I’ve spent my career working on – when it comes to your health, place matters. The place that you live in, the zip code that you’re born into, the neighborhood where you live and work in has a substantial impact on your wellness.

“It wasn’t until after medical school that my eyes opened up to a career in public health and later in philanthropy. I still carry the scars and the lessons of the South Bronx with me.”

Dr. Ross said he had an early interest in both science and people. A career in medicine seemed to be a good way to combine those interests. He graduated from the medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and completed a residency in pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. His first job was as a pediatrician at a community health center in Camden, New Jersey.

“That’s how I began to practice the craft of being a family pediatrician, but the epiphany for me was when crack cocaine hit inner city America in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It became quite the epidemic in urban America, particularly on the east coast. I witnessed what the introduction of cocaine did to the neighborhood I was serving. I saw serious increases in community violence, domestic violence and child abuse and neglect.”

That “sobering and eye-opening experience of witnessing the intersection of poverty and hopelessness and health and addiction” led Dr. Ross to shift to a career in public health. 

“I became intrigued with the idea of having a community as my patient, rather than an individual as my patient. That’s what public health is about,” he said. 

He took a job with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, eventually becoming Commissioner pf Public Health under Mayor Edward Rendell. He moved to California to become Director of the Health and Human Services Agency in San Diego County and a 

faculty member at San Diego State University’s School of Public Health.

“By the time The California Endowment found me in 2000, I had gained a new passion, around the social determinants of health and what we now call health equity,” he said. 

Through the Endowment’s 10-Year Building Healthy Communities effort, Dr. Ross led the foundation to support the engagement and leadership capacity of young people and community residents to fight for improved health and wellness at the community level. He also served as a founding board member of Covered California, which was responsible for the successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act in California.

As CEO and President of The California Endowment, Dr. Ross said the values that are important to him as a leader include humility, listening, grace, dignity and calmness. 

“You know that old adage from Gandhi: Be the change you want to see. I try to achieve that,” he said. “There is strength in humility. There is strength in listening. There is strength in being grounded and censored in values and letting that guide your work. For me, my own personal faith journey is the work I do. The work I do is my faith journey. I don’t compartmentalize my spiritual and values centeredness from the work that I do. I try and make it show up. I’ll always describe any success that I’ve had to humility, listening and being centered in values. 

“Look at the divisiveness of our nation and how badly needed listening and humility are required among our nation’s leaders. That’s an underappreciated set of qualities in a leader. You get a fancy title like President or CEO and there’s a heroic assumption about what a leader looks like and what a leader says and does. What I’ve found has worked for me best is how well does a leader listen and engage.” 

Dr. Ross recommends the book “Just Mercy” by civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes. (The book was turned into a 2019 movie, starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as one of his clients.)

“In his writing and in his speeches, Bryan Stevenson is excellent at asserting the importance of being proximate and that leadership is about being proximate to the pain of injustice,” said Dr. Ross. “If you’re proximate to the pain of injustice and never forget, it’ll make you the best type of leader.

“That’s something that I try to adhere to. With this job, I have the ability to meet with the governor, people in Congress, city councilors, CEOs of health systems and presidents of universities. I try to carry into those conversations with important and powerful people the experiences of injustice of the poor and the marginalized and the forgotten. To the extent that younger people ask me about my leadership approach, that’s what I try to talk about.” 

Those values carry over into Dr. Ross’s volunteer work with several California nonprofits, including Homeboy Industries, a grassroots organization founded by Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest whose ministry includes working with gangs in East Los Angeles. 

“Father Boyle does whatever he can through his organization to provide a healthier, more productive alternative than the gang life to the young people of color in East LA and around Los Angeles,” said Dr. Ross. 

“It’s a perfect illustration of the social determinants of health because these young people who have witnessed violence and suffered from trauma. Homeboy Industries provides mental health counseling, access to substance abuse treatment, job training and tattoo removal. They have social enterprises that employ former gang members in a bakery, a catering business and a T-shirt business.

“It’s an organization that I’m committed to because it’s about full and unapologetic inclusion, a real spiritual sense of belonging. No one is ever turned away and there’s a sense of hope for everyone who walks through the door. They’ve modeled what I our justice system needs to look like. It’s a symbol of hope for that community.” 

Dr. Ross and his late wife raised four children. He lives in Altadena and enjoys hiking, jazz and watching football.

For more information about The California Endowment, visit 

To learn more about Partners’ Annual Tribute Dinner, 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.