Civic Leader Says City Has ‘Right Stuff’

By Andy Meek

A little less than two years ago, Dr. Robert Ross was up for a standard performance review from the board of the foundation he leads.

Ross is the president and CEO of the California Endowment, a group established in 1996 to help address health care needs for the state of California. And at the time of his performance review, Ross didn’t want the extra money a favorable result would bring.

He only wanted time. As in, time to go on a deep dive into the factors surrounding why so many young African-American men in the U.S. are not living up to their full potential.

Ross came to Memphis in recent days as a guest of the Lipscomb Pitts Breakfast Club to talk to local business leaders about what he found and about why he thinks Memphis has all the right ingredients in place to do something about the problems that get in the way of young men leading successful lives.

“I wanted to immerse myself in why this crisis is happening to young black men in this country,” Ross said. “And then come back to the endowment after going around the country with a sharper strategy.”

He met with 60 people around the country, including congressional leaders, foundation presidents and the like. He heard “anxiety, concern and worry” about things like how some urban schools were essentially a so-called prison pipeline.

He was confronted with a litany of scapegoats. Some pointed to schools. Others, to parents.

One of the insights he shared in Memphis was how the single greatest predictor of life expectancy is not a person’s genetic code, it’s a person’s ZIP code.

While cautioning that “data is not destiny,” Ross pointed to data that highlight what he calls three intervention points when it becomes clear a young male is heading for trouble.

The first is third grade reading proficiency.

Up to that point, Ross said, children are learning to read. From that point on, though, they’re “reading to learn.”

And a large number of African-American boys in urban school districts are at less than third grade reading proficiency, Ross lamented.

The second intervention point is days missed from school. And the third point is school suspensions.

If a child is suspended once in high school, Ross said the data show that child dramatically begins to reduce their chances of going to college.

Ross said suspensions reflect a lack of tools available to educators to help young men.

“I’ve looked at your data on school suspensions in Memphis, and it ain’t pretty,” Ross said.

Ross is a trained physician, but he says he made the switch into community health after he got tired of treating patients with the same problems. He wanted to make an impact earlier in people’s lives.

In 1999, he was named by Governing Magazine as a national Public Official of the Year for his leadership in innovative health and social services delivery. Among his professional involvements, he is a diplomat of the American Academy of Pediatrics, served on the President’s Summit for America’s Future and as chairman of the national Boost for Kids Initiative.

“I think Memphis has a mixture of the right stuff,” Ross said. “You have a robust corporate sector involved in civic engagement. You’ve got a strong philanthropic sector. To the business community, this is not about more charity. This is about making change.”