N.J. Public Health Institute to Have Equity Focus


The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has awarded a two-year, $1 million grant to Acenda Integrated Health, a statewide nonprofit organization based in Glassboro, N.J., to serve as administrative, operational, and strategic home for the development of New Jersey’s public health institute.

Today, 33 states are served by a public health institute; New Jersey’s would be the first to have advancing health equity as a founding priority.

Acenda will serve as an incubator organization to launch the public health institute and promote collaboration and enhance capacity in New Jersey, where public health infrastructure and systems are strained by a lack of funding and capacity. It will play a key role in a reimagined public health system in the state, as recommended by a report released in March by RWJF, the Nicholson Foundation and the National Network of Public Health Institutes (NNPHI), with the New Jersey Department of Health.

The report capped a 10-month planning process that engaged a wide range of stakeholders from public health, healthcare, social services, and the faith community. The report found “two striking situations underscore the need for a public health institute in New Jersey: the state’s racial and ethnic inequities in health outcomes and underinvestment in the state’s public health infrastructure.” Both issues were exacerbated by the COVID pandemic and must be addressed in the public health institute’s development, the report stated.

“This is a remarkable development in the effort to establish a public health institute in New Jersey,” said Maisha Simmons, RWJF director of New Jersey grantmaking, in a statement. “A lot of dedicated advocates across the state worked hard for this moment to arrive. RWJF is proud to be a partner in helping all people in our home state live their healthiest life possible.” 

“Acenda looks forward to working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and New Jersey’s health leadership to incubate an innovative and impactful public health institute that leads the nation in its focus on health equity,” said Melissa Fox, Acenda’s chief operating officer, in a statement.

Acenda received the RWJF grant after a competitive proposal process. Among the organization’s strengths are its experience with advancing racial equity, focus on racial justice, extensive work with communities of color, and financial capability. Acenda is committed to reducing health disparities through a variety of public health-related initiatives, including reducing black infant and maternal morbidity and mortality. In many other states, institutes have successfully used an incubator organization to support their administrative and financial needs as they develop.

The incubator’s top priorities will include recruiting a diverse, multisector Board of Trustees to provide strategic guidance and oversight of the institute’s development, including hiring an executive director. The NNPHI will provide mentorship and ongoing guidance on strategic development, building partnerships, governance and other topics, as needed.

“The National Network of Public Health Institutes welcomes Acenda Integrated Health as incubator of a New Jersey public health institute,” said Erin Marziale, NNPHI Senior Director of Network Engagement. “Incubators are a best practice that enables emerging institutes to hit the ground running and demonstrate value quickly to key stakeholders, including historically-marginalized communities. As technical assistance and connectivity providers for public health institutes across the country, NNPHI looks forward to helping build a strong foundation for New Jersey’s efforts.”

New Jersey’s public health infrastructure and system have been strained for decades by lack of funding, insufficient coordination across health and related sectors, and the impact of social and economic determinants of health on New Jersey’s residents. New Jersey ranks 31st in the U.S. in state funding for public health, according to the Trust for America’s Health.

A report from the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy at Rutgers University found that New Jersey has the lowest median per capita state appropriation for public health among states examined in the report and only half the public health workforce per capita as neighboring Connecticut, Maryland, and Massachusetts.

The March report co-produced by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation identified four potential roles for a public health institute in New Jersey:

  • Collaborate within communities to advance health equity through authentic relationships and support capacity building, using a social justice framework;
  • Function as an assertive, responsive, nimble fiscal and administrative entity to support public health initiatives and health equity;
  • Serve as a community-driven, trusted, and independent convener that leads the administrative, operational, and strategic efforts in the development of a public health institute; and
  • Support and use an accessible, easy-to-use, modern data infrastructure.


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