Youth Transition Funders Group

25 Minutes with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Maisha Simmons


1. What is your role within the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and what interested you in the work you do?

I serve as the program officer for the Forward Promise initiative at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

My passion for this work comes in part from my own life experience. As a young woman growing up in my community, I saw firsthand the challenges that young men of color faced. As I made my way through middle and high school, I began to notice that boys in my class were becoming less interested in school. By the time I attended college, it became all too obvious. Boys, smart boys who were once my equal, were falling behind. But, as I later learned, the under-representation of men of color in higher education was a national problem. Nearly a fifth of Latino men and 1 in 10 African American men do not even have a high school diploma.

2. What is Forward Promise, and how did it come to be?

Forward Promise is a new $9.5 million initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that aims to improve the health of middle school- and high school-aged boys and young men of color, as well as their opportunities for success in school, work, and life.

Its origins date back to 2009, when RWJF released the final recommendations from our Commission to Build a Healthier America. The Commission took an in-depth look at the social, non-medical factors in our society that exert such a powerful influence on how healthy – or unhealthy – we are. It underscored that where we live, learn, work, and play has more to do with our health status than what our genes dictate or the health care we receive.

Forward Promise came out of this perspective. Young people of color — especially young men of color — are more likely to grow up in places where social influences like poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, and under-resourced schools make their paths to successful adulthood especially challenging.

3. Where is Forward Promise headed over the course of the next few years?

Since Forward Promise is new, 2013 will be the first year any projects are funded. Just a few weeks ago we put out a Call for Proposals to identify those first projects, so I’m looking forward to reviewing and meeting the applicants.

Later in 2013, we will award up to 10 grants of up to $500,000 each, and we will begin work with that first set of grantees. Because our approach at the Foundation is to only fund sustainable solutions that have the potential for widespread replication and national impact, it will be exciting a few years down the road when we really begin to see the fundamental breakthroughs that these innovative projects, once taken to a larger scale, can truly make in the health, education, and employment outcomes for these young men.

4. Are there any specific community-based projects within Forward Promise that you’re excited to share?

No grants have yet been awarded since Forward Promise is a new initiative. However, I can speak to some other exciting initiatives that the Foundation funds.

Cure Violence, formerly known as CeaseFire, is an organization with a simple yet revolutionary model to stop the transmission of violence, particularly in urban communities of color, by using the same science-based strategies used to fight infectious diseases.

EMS Corps is creating a strong pool of emergency medical professionals who are from the community and ready to serve. By identifying and training talented young men of color from Alameda County’s low-income communities, EMS Corps is creating a diverse, highly professional pool of emergency medical professionals with roots in the neighborhoods they serve.

Reclaiming Futures connects juvenile drug courts with treatment providers and community members to help teens overcome drugs, alcohol, and crime. By reinventing how juvenile courts operate and taking a comprehensive approach to treatment, Reclaiming Futures hopes to reconnect young men of color with positive relationships, educational opportunities, and the pathway to successful adulthood.

5. Why have you decided to focus on middle school- and high school-aged young men of color?

The reason we’re focusing on young men and not young women is because while all young people need support on the road to becoming healthy, productive adults, it’s especially true for teenage boys.

Growing up often involves risk-taking and experimentation for young men, particularly as they define their masculinity and exert independence. The data show that for young men of color, actions that would be treated as youthful mistakes by others are punished far more severely. Black boys, for instance, are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than White boys. Helping them and other young men of color navigate the teen years successfully is key to helping them reach their potential.

How can other foundations contribute to the discussion and work being done within this population?

I’m really glad you asked this question — one thing that we already knew, and has been reinforced at every gathering I’ve been to and in the many emails I receive, is that there’s a wealth of philanthropies in this space who are doing great work — and we intend to build on and learn from it. There are some affinity groups that have taken on a leadership role in aligning philanthropy in this work. For instance, Grantmakers for Children Youth and Families lead in collaboration with philanthropic partners the Healthy Men, Healthy Communities Initiative. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with a variety of funders to develop and implement a strategic agenda that is aligned with reducing disparities for males of color. Our collaboration allows us the opportunity to craft strategies to leverage our individual investments for collective impact.

This is just one example of how funders are being organized to not only learn from one another, but also to take advantage of the opportunity to collaborate with one another to develop strategies to improve outcomes for males of color.

I have found that joining the initiatives of affinity groups or groups like the YTFG has helped me know the issue in a deeper way—especially as I learn about how other foundations are approaching their work. It has enabled Froward Promise to be an initiative that compliments the great work that already exists in the field by supporting innovation and collaboration among partners at various levels of opportunity.

I encourage everyone to visit us online or join the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #ForwardPromise.

To find out more about the work of the Robert Wood Johnson foundation, go to

25 Minutes is a YTFG interview series to introduce new members to our network of philanthropic leaders and to update the Action Group on the emerging work of long-time members of the Youth Transition Funders Group.