Public Health

Trauma & Resiliency, Health and Activism: A Cross Generational Conversation Between BlackLivesMatter’s Patrisse Cullors and California Endowment’s Dr. Robert Ross

“The most important indicator of your life expectancy in this country is your zip code,” said Dr. Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, and a former pediatrician. “Race and racism, schools and public education, public housing, jobs, trauma, toxic stress—that’s the toxic brew that leads to disparities for African Americans in this country, and for communities of color in general,” Ross said. “Eighty percent of your life expectancy has nothing to do with health care.”

Ross made the observation at a cross-generational conversation with #BlackLivesMatter co-founder, Patrisse Cullors, about the violence and trauma plaguing inner city communities, how to help cure that trauma, and what can be learned from the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s to better address today’s public health problems.

The exchange was moderated by Krista Tippett, host of NPR’s On Being for later broadcast on her show, and it took some surprising directions.


When the California Endowment—the state’s largest non-profit health foundation–was founded in the 90’s, racial bias, trauma and resiliency, and a broken criminal justice system were not yet on the radar as public health issues. Ross took over as head of the Endowment in 2000, and has steered the foundation in some significant new directions as research has started to catch up to the realities of underserved communities of color in California and beyond. One of those new directions involves supporting the efforts of #BlackLivesMatter and other activist groups.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement, which started on social media, was founded by three queer black women—Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza—in response to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen in Florida. Through “hashtag activism” and protests, the organization has been integral in bringing to public attention the disproportionate number of deaths of black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. Not surprisingly #BlackLivesMatter developed into a flashpoint for controversy, with opponents countering with hashtags #AllLivesMatter, and #BlueLivesMatter (in reference to police).

But, in the conversation with Tippett, Cullors emphasized that the “conversation about black lives mattering is a conversation about all lives mattering.”

According to Ross, the Endowment believes that supporting activist groups like #BlackLivesMatter in their fight against systemic racism in its many forms has become an important component in the foundation’s effort to improve the health and well being of California’s communities. “What we found is that by funding and supporting activism and leadership, we are actually addressing public health,” he said.

Cullors, who is in her early 30’s and very pregnant, talked about why she has found the work of #BlackLivesMatter to be so healing and how her upbringing framed her life of activism on behalf of people of color.

A South Los Angeles native, Cullors was brought up by an activist grandmother whom she said “stood up for black life” while her own mother worked three jobs. “My grandmother showed me what it could look like to live a full life as a black woman in this country with integrity.”

While Cullors grew up during LA’s crack epidemic and watched the war on drugs unfold, Ross, who is 60, grew up in south Bronx during the tail end of the civil rights movement, and was working as a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital when crack made its appearance in the US.

As crack spread through poor urban neighborhoods, Ross said he watched youth violence, gun violence, and property crimes skyrocket. He also attended numerous deliveries of crack babies and said that the nation’s medical community was not prepared for the effects of widespread drug addiction.

“I wasn’t prepared for any of that based on my training,” Ross explained. “I could treat a kid with asthma or an ear infection, or even meningitis. But there was this other thing happening that was quite powerful, for which I had zero training.”

Ross explained that the shock of dealing with the catastrophic effect of the crack epidemic of the 1980’s and 1990’s on poor urban neighborhoods was his introduction to what we now call the “social determinants of health”—factors like housing, education, and lack of employment that impact wellness.

He was further angered, he said, as he watched what he called the nation’s “fear-based” response to what he saw plainly to be a public health crisis. “I was quite bitter at what the nation’s response was—which was to criminalize drug addiction,” Ross said.


Now, 30 years later, said Ross, the nation is only starting to reverse the damages done by the war on drugs and poverty.

Ross said he felt that part of the problem was the failure of his generation to take action on these issues that affected African American communities disproportionately. “It was my parents’ generation that weathered the depression, defeated Hitler, brought the civil rights movement,” he said. “Our generation has pretty much dropped the ball…We left the business of addressing structural racism and inequality undone.” Ross said he wants to see “defeating inequality as the next moon shot for this nation.”

Part of the problem, according to Ross and Cullors, is that many believed changing discriminatory laws would change the public narrative. “You can’t policy your racism away,” said Cullors. “We no longer have Jim Crow laws, but we still have Jim Crow hate.”


Tippett asked Cullors about the fact that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has drawn criticism for using anger and civil disobedience as a strategy for combating racism and injustice. Cullors replied that, if looked at from another angle, the acts of resistance are acts of love. “When we show up on the freeway, when we chain ourselves to each other, that’s an act of love,” she said. “It’s an act of love that we will put our bodies on the line for our community and for this country. In changing black lives we change all lives.”

Ross noted that research is beginning to indicate that outrage and activism are actually good for our health, especially for those who have been “traumatized, stigmatized, and oppressed” he said. “The science on trauma and what it does to us is a lot better developed than the resiliency side. But there is something about civic activism and engagement that appears to be powerfully immunizing against poor health.”

Both Ross and Cullors pointed to the importance of social media as a tool to reframe public narratives. “Social media allowed for a new generation to speak from their own perspective,” said Cullors. “It’s allowed for a new conversation, a new reach. As we know so much of media is corporatized. You’re not going to get the authentic messaging from folks who are on the ground who are having these conversations.”

Framing is crucial to #BlackLivesMatter, and the civil rights work of today, Ross pointed out. “How issues are framed dictates how public policy conversations are laid out,” said Ross. “’Three strikes and you’re out’ went from a bumper sticker and a slogan to national and state policy in a minute. And bingo–440% increase in America’s prison population.”

Cullors agreed, adding that it is important to treat racism and every other form of discrimination as a sickness. “We are social creatures. Human to human, if you take a moment to be with somebody to understand the pains they’re going through, you get to transform yourself. #BlackLivesMatter is a re-humanizing project,” she said.

Ross added that the power of personal stories is essential in reversing racial bias in the justice system. “What we try to execute is this combination of storytelling and science to move the policy agenda,” Ross said. “We are going to reform the criminal justice system, and we are going to do that with young peoples’ stories.”


  • I’m not buying the BLM narrative for one simple reason: Cullors and Ross conveniently ignore the determinant role behavioral choices play in young black men dying at the hands of the police. Simply put, not engaging in violent crime is the single most important thing a black man can do to ensure his safety, period.

    Cullors is both intellectually dishonest and prejudiced in her failed efforts at generalizing police conduct across the nation. Her myopic view of law enforcement is based on her many days in front of Central Jail, clipboard and bullhorn in hand, hustling just released inmates to tell her what she wanted to hear.

  • Cullors is an absolute fraud. Her motivation for Black Lives Matter is for a paycheck, period. All the Black Lives Matters (a George Soros production) manage to do was piss millions of people off. News Flash for the Black Community: You want change and opportunity? Stop voting Democrat at every single election. You are and have been “used” by political hacks in the Democrat Party for the last 60 years. Every single major city in America is governed by Democrats, SFO, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Baltimore, DC, Ferguson, you name it. Every one of them is a shit hole, filled with corruption, inept governance and high taxes with nothing to show for it. Every one of those cities have major crime problems, Black communities that are shit holes, the list goes on. President LBJ said it best when he signed into law, Welfare as we know it, “I’ll have those N—— voting Democrat for the next 200 years.

    You want change? So let me ask you this, what has Obama done for you, all the Black “elected leaders” from Congress to California State legislatures to your local officials? What have they done for you? Not a damn thing, nor will they. They will keep you on the plantation for life while they live like kings and queens, live in nice homes and collect great paychecks. They will come around during election time, pimp themselves to “the community” and they blow you off for another four years. You live in those hoods, I don’t, so believe the bullshit Obama has been feeding you and now Clinton and there are a hundred more lined up behind them. OR, you can try something different. The second piece of advice, Fix the “Black culture,” that plagues your community. I don’t need to go into it much, single parents with 10 kids from different baby’s daddy’s, drop out of school in the 9th grade and wonder why you can’t get a job so you rob and steal and then wonder why you go to jail, etc. No secrets. You will be amaze how your life will change, for the better. Or you can go around and yell, “Black lives matters.” No one is listening. Cullors, your 15 min are wayyyyyyy over. Go home and have your baby and then get a real job to make real change.

  • Surefire – You’re right on the money. Maybe if it weren’t for racist cops, BLM would never exist. The list of dirty and corrupt acts toward citizens of color by racist cops are too numerous to list. No need to respond.

  • Argus, we agree on Cullors, no doubt. You kind of ran off the rails when you went political. I can think of many backwater cesspools run by Republicans as well. Poverty is the deciding factor, not party affiliation. If the Republican party didn’t have the “economic freedom” concept as one of their guiding principles, you would be standing on better ground.

    It’s hard for those who play by the rules, get educated, work hard in a particular industry, and then see their job shipped to China or India. Even worse, the GOP championed the H1-B visa program, where cheap foreign labor is insourced to replace American workers in high-tech industries. Then you have offshoring of American corporations to cut labor costs and dodge taxes, not exactly helping out the US middle class, are we?

    Bottom line, both parties suck, for slightly different reasons. Both are dominated by special interests looking out for themselves, not the US middle class. Amazing, though, how we’ve propped up a thriving middle class in China and India, but can’t do it at home.

  • LATBG,
    Argus gave specific examples to make his point ( He forgot Detroit ) lol. You did not debate his assertion or point regarding the specific cities he mentioned. . You countered with a generality. Perhaps you could give us a few of the many examples you referred to of the “backwater cesspools run by Republicans” to add credibility to your claim.
    You can be Ashby Klein’s hero and counter with generalities until hell freezes over. What you can’t do is point to a specific example that Argus gave and say he is incorrect regarding that specific city. They all have one thing in common, and we all know what it is. While your slick deflection might fly with Ashby and other Democratic pom-pom waivers, it won’t fly with cops.
    The supporting evidence is overwhelming to support Argus’ claim. Your counter was nothing more than talking points and opinion.
    Cut the bullshit. The big cities he referred to ARE shitholes. Perhaps you could counter with a major city that is run by Republicans that is a shithole. Or, again, you could point to several of the “many” backwater cesspools you referred to. Of course, that would be apples and oranges—“Backwaters” vs. major cities, but at least it’s a starting point if you want to counter his point by giving specific, tangible examples instead of talking points and opinion.

  • Absolutely zero respect for the whole black lives matter narrative and most specifically, for the RACIST elephant in the discussion, Cullors. ZERO credibility on any level, and she is leaching monies, handouts and presumably grants, etc. to fund her unemployed lifestyle. She does not want to take responsibility and/or take a leadership role in cleaning up the generations of folks leaching off welfare and other programs, absentee parenting, and fingerpointing at police for their own misbehaving offspring.

    The media has an AFFIRMATIVE responsibility to acknowledge the many, many black people that have stepped up, maintained strong families, raised good and upstanding citizens and shown that there is a path to the middle class. So many, many people in the black community are doing good things and largely ignored in the press… because… there are no ratings in it.

    I would rather read about their positive efforts… than to read about a cry-baby that makes a living by sponging off the bad that they seemingly enable to flourish.

  • As far as BLM goes, once again I’ll be the buzz kill and the asshole that has the temerity to point out the elephant standing in the middle of the room shitting all over the floor by asking the pertinent questions.
    Who’s running the cities where the “murders” committed by cops they are so outraged about have taken place? Who’s in charge of the police departments in those cities? Who is the “establishment” in those cities that BLM says engage in systemic racism?

    The BLM crowd and everybody who supports them or lends a sympathetic ear to them can step lightly and deftly around the piles of shit on the floor at the party and pretend it doesn’t exist. They can even pretend it doesn’t stink.
    Woooosha I persheate dat they’re upset and outraged yessiree I do alrighty then. The inconvenient truth is, the cities they protest in against “the system” are run by Democrats. Woooooosha, what’s that you say my friend? They’re going to keep voting Democrat? I persheate dat yes I do I’ll but I’ll be leaving now. There’s nothing I can say or do to help you. Wooooosha.

    Oops. Isn’t that a Daisy!!!

  • Oh Well: No hero’s here. I recognize a touche when I see one as far as the political realm was concerned. Argus also a valid point. This is not combat, it’s commentary.

  • Oh Well, you appear to have lost a step or two. Like most right wing aficionados, you did the usual rant but left out the all important difference between correlation and causation. Ooops. The old lesson still holds true: Just because ice cream sales increase in summer, it doesn’t mean that ice cream causes the upsurge in crime in summer months.

    We can run a state by state analysis of crime rates, compare big cities to little cities, and any good statistician would point out the obvious: poverty is a factor, not party affiliation. That means the rural poor communities in red states, under siege because of rampant meth abuse, have their share of problems as well, but I don’t blame it on their Republican city councils or state legislatures. That would be intellectually dishonest.

    If you view the world through the prism of partisan hatred, then you are the man walking around with a hammer and everything looks like a nail. Policy-wise, Prop 47 is a failure, but then again so was Three Strikes since we refused to pay for keeping an enormous prison population under lock and key. The world is more complicated than a cartoonish black and white worldview.

  • Once again, not one specific tangible example. Generalities. PC analogies. Great talking points.
    And the bottom line? Well would you look at that? No debating of Argus’ main point that the specific cities he mentioned are governed by Democrats. The constituents overwhelmingly vote Democrat, You are right about one thing, there is crippling poverty in each one of those cities he mentioned. Oops, whatever we do, let’s not make any correlation where areas controlled by Democrats and poverty are concerned. That wouldn’t be good racial manners, and it certainly doesn’t fit the narrative.
    Let’s just remind everybody that “Both parties suck”. Yeah, that’s it. That’s good. That way we can all get along and be accepted.
    Here you go, I’ll end this ever so uncomfortable topic with this statement.
    The problem with Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore and LA is that there’s too many Republicans on the city councils. If they weren’t so heavily controlled by right wing wackos who only care about lining their pockets off the backs of the middle class and poor in those cities, If they weren’t controlled by Republicans, maybe there wouldn’t be so much poverty and systemic racism. That’s the problem, all the Republicans in charge of those cities. The people in those cities need to vote for Democrats if they ever want change.

    There now. We can be friends again. I hit all the talking points and stuck to the narrative.

  • Your logic, like that of Argus, is unassailable. Perhaps you two should move to have the DNC banned from the country as they are surely the cause of all evil that lurks in the heart of men every where. I myself will seek refuge in one of those conservative Utopias, the kind with few rules, no taxes, a theocratic government, no minimum wage, a big army, and a steady supply of wars to start. Any country you have in mind that fits the bill?

    Out of curiosity, what American city run by Republicans in a state run by Republicans do you wish to list as your Exhibit A?

  • Lol. Whatever “Backwater cesspool” you choose to list will do just fine. You’re the one who opened this fandango by stating you could think of many—-but failed to list even one, even after being asked to do so.
    Forgive me for forgetting how this how this works—–I ask you a direct question based on an assertion you made—-you choose to ignore it—-and counter with a question—-and I’m supposed to answer it.

    I’m sorry I forgot the rules. I’m bad about that. That’s why people don’t like me. I don’t play by their intellectually dishonest and disingenuous rules when discussing or debating an issue.. I’m the asshole who challenges them on assertions and asks them to back them up. I’m also the asshole who requires that they don’t expect me to give them the respect of answering their questions, after they’ve refused to answer mine, which were asked prior to theirs.
    You are an intelligent, educated, reasonable man. I agree with many, in fact most, of your positions and opinions. I agree with your statements about Patricia Cullors.

  • For the record, in case you lost track of assertions, this was the first one by Argus that started this thread:

    “Every single major city in America is governed by Democrats, SFO, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Baltimore, DC, Ferguson, you name it. Every one of them is a shit hole, filled with corruption, inept governance and high taxes with nothing to show for it. Every one of those cities have major crime problems, Black communities that are shit holes, the list goes on.”

    There are so many assertions, without a factual basis, in those comments I don’t even know where to begin. I can duly note, however, that you accepted Argus’ premises without question, but didn’t waste time challenging mine. I won’t lose sleep over it, just an observation.

    If you establish a relationship based on cause and effect, I will be willing to accept your premise, but that has yet to happen. The age old question is: How do you know what you know? In your answer lies your source of information, be it coworkers you socialize with, rant radio, news, church, political groups, personal experience, whatever.

    And by the way, that shit hole called Los Angeles is where we work and play, and last time I checked, the LASD corruption scam was run by registered Republicans…

  • LATBG: Self righteousness is a character flaW, not a virtue. Oh Well, Remember the old saying you can’t argue with a drunk, the same is true with over educated liberals.

  • In #6 you state: “I can think of many backwater cesspools run by Republicans as well” Then in #17 you state: “the LASD corruption scam was run by registered republicans” Wow. Now you’re inferring that LASD is “Backwater” and that LASD is a “cesspool”. My oh my. It wasn’t long ago you were referring to another agency as “Podunk” and giving your opinion that they were “not ready for prime time”. I pointed out you might not want to be pointing fingers, FOR THE EXACT REASON YOU ARE NOW POINTING OUT—–The corruption in the LASD, our own agency. You took exception. You remember that exchange don’t you? Sure you do.
    Like you opened up with in #12, I may have lost a step or two.
    Not you. Nice job. Those dudes in the Bolshoi Ballet ain’t got shit on you. You have proved you can still dance your ass off and change directions on a dime when it suits your fluid and flexible positions.
    My guess is you at least attained the rank of captain. Probably commander or chief. Not everybody can dance like that. You’ve learned to dance well. Very well. The problem is, even a lowly detective recognizes dancing when he sees it.
    The truth is, as was Argus’ point, that the major cities he listed are all run by Democrats—and they all suffer from crippling poverty—–yet the constituents in those cities keep voting for Democrats.
    You bolster his point for him when you point out that in your opinion, poverty is the determinate factor for the high crime rate in those cities. Lol. Do you not see that? Can’t no dance moves camouflage it, much less render it untrue. It’s not debatable. Why? Because it’s fact.
    Another example of your brilliant, absolutely dazzling dance moves? Still waiting for you to list just a few of the many backwater cesspools that are run by Republicans that you conveniently claimed you could think of. Why didn’t you just name a few when all this bullshit started? That would’ve shut me up. You could’ve shoved it right up my ass. Went deep up in me. But you didn’t. Why? Is it that you like dancing? Or is that you made a claim that was “slightly untrue” that you couldn’t back up? lol. Why not name those backwater cesspools run by Republicans if you could think of them off the top of your head? You would love nothing more than to prove me wrong, right? Or is the truth that you’d need to do a little research to find a few of them? I have no doubt they’re there. But I do doubt you could name them at the drop of a hat, off the top of your head, Otherwise you would of done so when challenged on it. You’d rather dance than do your homework. There isn’t a lot of municipalities in Southern California that are run by Republicans. You were on the LASD at least 30 years ago, because you remember Dr. George and his verbal judo. So it’s reasonable to believe that you’re only familiar with municipalities surrounding the Southern California area. It’s HIGHLY unlikely that you are intimately familiar with many “Backwater cesspools” and their internal politics. This tit for tat between us isn’t important enough to you to actually do some research to prove your point. You’d rather dance. After all, dancing comes natural to you. That is more than evident. You have an aptitude for it (that’s why you went so high in LASD).
    You’re good. Real good. Kudos.
    But the truth is, if you could’ve so easily thought of those backwater cesspools run by Republicans you would’ve named a few of the many when I challenged you to do so. If for no other reason than to attempt to prove me wrong and make me look even dumber than I am. The truth is, in your rebuttal to Argus’ post (that raised your “non-partisan” ire) you stepped in it and made a claim you couldn’t back up—-not easily off the top of your head anyway.
    Yeah, I know. I’m not even close!!!! I’m way off. Couldn’t be more wrong. You could’ve easily named a few of the many, just like you claimed. You simply chose not to.

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