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Planting the Seeds of a Lifetime of Advocacy


This week the Inside Track continues a series of interviews with members of the Strategic Advisory Committee of Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association, exploring their various contributions to the fight against childhood obesity.

For Leader John Govea, community activism is the family business—a business that allowed him, at a young age, to witness history in the farm fields of his Bakersfield, California, hometown.

The senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation learned the ropes of grassroots organizing from his parents, who co-founded the Bakersfield chapter of the Community Service Organization. There they trained with labor organizers, including Cesar Chavez before he founded United Farm Workers (UFW).

Walking picket lines and joining marches “was my youth development program,” said John, whose work focuses on developing advocacy strategies to address nutrition and fitness for children, as well as broader health disparities. “Seeing people who saw that they had the power to control their own lives, not just take what is given to them, [was] incredibly powerful.”

Govea’s father first arrived in the United States from Mexico as part of the “bracero” program for temporary workers, employed on the Santa Fe Railroad. His mother grew up as a farm worker and took her children out every summer to pick grapes and tomatoes. Those experiences under the hot sun of Bakersfield “made me convinced that I wanted to work inside!” he joked.

Armed with that knowledge, he decided he wanted to become a lawyer and went on to study at Stanford and Berkeley. He worked for Legal Aid but, when funding cuts hit in the 1980s, he co-founded a private practice in Salinas, California. There, he specialized in workers’ compensation cases on behalf of farm worker clients. It was rewarding “helping people through difficult times within a system that was really unfair to them.” But eventually, his interest turned to trying to make wider changes to that system which offered greater potential to impact his community’s health.

He completed mid-career studies at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and then returned to California, where he got his foot in the door of the philanthropy world at the Community Foundation for Monterey County and then at the Packard Foundation. Next he went on to a position overseeing AmeriCorps programs for the state of California, and from there moved to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2007.

Since coming to the Foundation, he said, there has been a progression from a focus on research (“to make sure we were investing in the right things”) to action (supporting local innovations and implementing change) and, now, to advocacy. He cited first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative as one key development that has helped pave the way for such advocacy to go forward.

The Foundation’s current work is framed “in terms of building a Culture of Health,” he said, “and this whole notion of culture is one that really calls for shared values.” One goal is to work toward generating more demand from the grassroots for amenities and policies that foster this culture.

On the Strategic Advisory Committee of Voices for Healthy Kids, he noted, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is an ex officio member whose role is to be a resource for other organizations, to foster partnerships, and to listen and take advice into account from members representing a wide swath of American society.

“If we’re going to have a Culture of Health, it has to be for everyone,” John said, reflecting lessons he learned early in life. “We’re seeing such disparities in things that go beyond health but that affect health—education, housing. Raising that issue of equity is something that we’re really wanting to put a spotlight on.”