Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Names Lynn Todman a Culture of Health Leader

Todman Joins 39 Other Fellows Working Toward Health Equity

By CGR Communications

ST. JOSEPH, Mich. – Being a leader can sometimes be lonely.

But when you can lean on and bounce ideas off other leaders — even if they’re scattered across the country — the work load can feel a bit lightened or shared, and rich with new possibilities. Different perspectives inform your work. You’re part of a team.

Lynn Todman is enjoying just such a long-distance collaboration as one of the 40 Americans in 25 states who were recently named Culture of Health Leaders by the Princeton, N.J.-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Culture of Health Leaders is a three-year program that seeks people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds from a great variety of fields and professions in the private, public, nonprofit and social enterprise sectors. Todman is executive director for population health at Spectrum Health Lakeland in St. Joseph.

Todman’s fellowship perfectly dovetails with a three-year initiative, from 2018 through 2021, that she created and is leading in Berrien County. It is called Community Grand Rounds: Healing the Trauma of Racism. CGR is a partnership between her own family foundation, which is providing a substantial grant over the three years, and Spectrum Health Lakeland.

CGR is informing medical professionals and the public about the reasons behind the far worse health outcomes for black people than white people in Berrien County. The county’s African Americans are largely concentrated in the Benton Harbor area, making Berrien one of Michigan’s most segregated counties.

Ultimately, Todman and her local team will collect and sift through ideas for a combined health system/community action plan to narrow health inequities. Her RWJF “long-distance” team will be allies in this work on racial health equity.

A Big Investment

The RWJF Culture of Health Leaders is an intensive program. The foundation’s website says “Culture of Health” refers to the goal of helping everyone in America live longer and healthier lives.

Lots of time and money is being invested to help develop leaders. The foundation’s goal is that these health leaders will collaborate in their communities to provide transformative leadership to advance health and equity. The RWJF identifies itself as the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health.

More than 600 people applied for fellowships. It was a rigorous process involving an application and interview.

Participants focus the first year of their fellowships on getting to know their strengths and weaknesses through such means as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator of personality styles and monthly personal coaching.

‘An Amazing Cohort’

“It’s been very helpful in giving me concrete tools, literature and a social network to plug into,” Todman said of her fellowship. The fellows coach and help each other “move along in these paradigm shifts of how they understand health.”

The 40 participants constitute “an amazing cohort of people,” Todman said.  “It’s a really eclectic group of individuals from across the country who are committed to building a culture of health. Being plugged into that group is invaluable.” For instance, as the Spectrum Health Lakeland system prepared its programming to mark the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, she shared some insights she had learned in her fellowship on the evolution of various legislative acts.

“It’s a really eclectic group of individuals from across the country who are committed to building a culture of health. Being plugged into that group is invaluable.”

Each fellow spends the first year with three other fellows in a four-person group. This small group meets in person three times a year, in addition to long-distance communication. During the second year a rotation moves a fellow into a new four-person group with three different peers, and the rotation applies again for the third year, ensuring each fellow gets to know and work closely with nine other RWJF fellows during the three years. Todman is working with fellows from Virginia, Connecticut and Texas in year one.

Her Own Background

Todman grew up in Chicago. She has a doctorate in urban and regional planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she later served as a visiting scholar and a research affiliate in MIT’s Community Innovators Laboratory. At the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago she held leadership positions in social justice and in Adler’s Institute on Social Exclusion. At one point she was a faculty collaborator at the University of Milan in Italy.

In 2015, shortly before she became head of population health for the hospital system in St. Joseph, Todman examined the links between nutrition and behavior at a public school in nearby Benton Harbor. It is a community situated in a so-called food desert, without a full-scale grocery store and ready access to nutritious food. She coordinated many people and entities in preparing, delivering and serving nutritious breakfasts and lunches to the students for eight weeks, and at the time said early results suggested the change in food decreased students’ antisocial behavior.

The Community Grand Rounds effort grew partly out of a hard — and hard to ignore — publication of data concerning Berrien County residents’ physical and mental health. This government-required Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA), published in October 2016, revealed in detail what many people had known, but never in such glaring, comprehensive detail: how black county residents, mostly living in a so-called hyper-segregated cluster in an around Benton Harbor, suffer far greater rates of chronic diseases and far shorter lifespans than whites.

For Todman, the CHNA’s overwhelming evidence of health disparities along racial lines was a catalyst for CGR. In addition, she has the educational background, experience, financial wherewithal and hospital system leadership position to help make changes. She felt personally compelled to lead this social change in Berrien County. The officials of the Lakeland system signed on, and in early 2018 the CGR collaboration began.

Creating an Action Plan

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provides each fellow with an annual stipend for three years. For the third year, a participant can access additional funds for a culminating project called a Culture of Health initiative. Other non-cash support the foundation provides, such as transportation, conferences, hotel accommodations and personal coaching, boosts the per-fellow investment for the three years substantially.

The third, and final, years of the RWJF fellowship and Community Grand Rounds will overlap for Todman. Therefore, she is planning for the culminating project of her fellowship to be the action plan created by CGR participants.

Such a plan is yet a way off and indistinct in shape. But possible elements will very likely include seeking policy changes within the local health system and in local government agencies, including the County Health Department. CGR leaders are also considering rolling out a program in which companies, institutions and a variety of other entities would be trained and pledge to be “certified inclusive.”

All changes will be aimed to help improve the everyday environment for Berrien County residents, with a focus on black residents, because of the dramatic health and life expectancy disparities between blacks and whites.