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Wade Norwood

Community leader finds Common Ground to bring quality health care to underserved in Finger Lakes region

By Mike Costanza

Wade Norwood in front of Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester on Sept. 28. Photo by Chuck Wainwright.
Wade Norwood in front of Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester on Sept. 28. Photo by Chuck Wainwright.

“The idea of service is deeply rooted in my family history,” says Wade Norwood, the CEO of Common Ground Health. “We have an obligation to something greater than ourselves.”

Norwood has met that obligation in a variety of ways. Since he took the helm of Common Ground, he’s overseen efforts to determine the causes of poor health in the nine-county Finger Lakes region, and to find ways to combat the problem. The nonprofit has 38 people on its payroll, and a budget of about $5.7 million.

“We are the region’s health planning entity. We bring focus to regional health issues through our research, data and analytics, our community engagement and the collaborative partnerships in which we participate,” he says.

In addition to giving his time and energy to that worthy cause, Norwood once served on the Rochester City Council, has tried for the Democratic nod to run for mayor of Rochester, and is a member of the New York State Board of Regents. While these facts illustrate a colorful life, the 55-year-old has also had to cope with the deaths of two of his four children.

Born in Rochester’s 19th ward, Norwood is the third of four children born to the late Booker Norwood, who preferred to be called “John,” and his wife Mary Lou.  Faith played a strong role in the family. Norwood’s mother is an ordained minister, as were his father and at least three of his grandparents.

“Church on Sunday was a daylong experience,” Norwood says.

As a child, Norwood attended school in Rochester and spent much of his free time playing with his siblings, cousins and neighborhood kids.

“We were free-range kids roaming outdoors, engaging in street play and under the watchful eyes of a neighborhood of people who collectively parented us,” he says.

All that changed in 1974 when John, who worked for a local pharmaceuticals firm, had what Norwood calls his “George Jefferson” moment.

“He and his ‘Weezie,’ my mom Mary Lou, they moved us out to Henrietta,” Norwood explains. George and Louise “Weezie” Jefferson were the principal characters in “The Jeffersons,” a sitcom about an African-American family that moved from New York City to the suburbs.

While Norwood was attending school in Henrietta, the avid reader discovered the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, who penned award-winning fantasies.

“‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Silmarillion’ were life-shaping works,” Norwood says. “They provided me with a construct for what is central to my faith. It is the happy turn which ‘pierces you with a joy that brings tears.’ Tears of joy are the highest function of worship, praise or prayer.”

Norwood graduated from Rush Henrietta Senior High School before enrolling at the University of Rochester. He initially majored in chemical engineering and then switched to political science. A work-study job at Rush Rhees Library connected him with another student employee — the young woman who eventually became Lisa Norwood.

“I absolutely fell in love with her as we both worked at the circulation desk,” Norwood says.

Jumps into political arena

Wade Norwood with his wife Lisa, left, and Walisa Griffin (center), his younger sister, who works alongside him as the church’s secretary and youth minister.
Wade Norwood with his wife Lisa, left, and Walisa Griffin (center), his younger sister, who works alongside him as the church’s secretary and youth minister.

In 1985, flush with a bachelor’s degree, he joined the staff of the late New York State Assemblyman David Gantt.

“I met David when I was young, and knew that I did not want to be a theoretical political scientist or researcher, but rather a practitioner of practical politics,” Norwood says.

Gantt represented the 137th District, which includes parts of northeastern and southwestern Rochester and Gates, for nearly 40 years. Though the veteran politician authored a number of important bills, he was particularly known for serving his constituents. Norwood’s position on the legislator’s staff was a good fit.

“To move into the practical application of helping constituents get their problems solved, of learning and conducting the legislative process, to understand the three-men-in-a-room approach in Albany and how a bill actually becomes a law was an education that I cannot too highly value,” Norwood says.

Back in those days, Anne Marie Cook led the staff of the Monroe County Legislature’s Democratic majority. She came to be friends with Norwood, and to depend upon him for information on the state budget.

“I used to say he was like a New York state budget savant,” Cook says. “You’d ask him a question [and] he’d know the answer.”

Cook is the president and CEO of Lifespan of Greater Rochester, a nonprofit that serves older adults and their caregivers. She’s remained friends with Norwood, and still taps him on the shoulder when she has questions about the state budget.

While working for Gantt, Norwood took on other challenges. He served four successive terms on the Rochester City Council, where he helped pass or authored important bills. The complete list includes the groundbreaking legislation that established Rochester’s lead poisoning prevention program.

“That was the final piece of legislation that I authored, and it was passed on the final night of my service as a council member,” Norwood says.

Since that bill passed, childhood lead poisoning has fallen in Rochester by more than 80%.

Norwood eventually became Gantt’s chief of staff, but left that position in 2004. In 2005, he set his sights on a new goal: securing the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for mayor of Rochester. In a city where Democratic voters are in the majority, the party’s nod would have given him a straight line to the winner’s circle. The race against three other Democrats left Norwood frustrated.

“Most of the debate in the mayoral campaign was not about the issues or the facts, but about the [party’s] factions,” he says.

Norwood lost the primary to former Rochester Chief of Police Robert Duffy.

Strengthening the organization

In 2006, Norwood took a job as the director of safety net initiatives for the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency. It changed its name to Common Ground Health in 2017.

At that time, the regional health planning nonprofit produced thoroughly researched reports that pretty much sat on shelves. Norwood set out to change that.

“When I arrived, there was no community-facing part of the organization,” he says. “I got the chance to build it.”

After coming on board, Norwood reconstituted two important all-volunteer groups that were part of Finger Lakes Health: the African American Health Coalition and the Latino Health Coalition. Each group consisted of those who were leading residents of the community it represented. Both met only when needed.

“Whenever the agency wanted to have their input, they would pull them together. Then they would disband them,” Norwood explains.

Norwood decided to make the coalitions permanent, and have them meet regularly.

“We would have a ready partnership with the community leaders within the communities of color, so as to better bring focus to the health issues that challenge us, and to achieve health equity by race, by socioeconomic status,” he says.

As a result, the coalitions became much more capable of researching the health care issues affecting their communities and of determining ways to improve the health of those living in them.

“They help us create qualitative and quantitative tools to go out and deepen our understanding,” Norwood says. “They provide us with a forum by which we can share insights drawn from the data.”

Down through the years, Norwood has continued to attack the sources of poor health in the Finger Lakes region. At the same time, he has advanced to more responsible positions at his agency. In the summer of 2018, he became Common Ground’s CEO. Cook has worked with Norwood on various projects, and praises his skills.

“Wade epitomizes leadership,” she says. “You can see it in meetings where he just inspires everybody to do better, and do it with honesty and integrity.”

Among his many accomplishments at Common Ground, Norwood is particularly proud of having overseen the organization’s most recent research effort. The 2018 My Health Story survey was created to determine the impact that poverty has upon the health of those living in the Finger Lakes.

Its results, as shown in the 2019 report “Overloaded: The Heavy Toll of Poverty on our Region’s Health,” were striking. By nearly every measure, the region’s poor suffer worse health outcomes than those who are financially better off.

As valuable as the data in “Overloaded” should be for attacking poor health in this area, the research effort was also a milestone for Common Ground.

“This is the first evidence of our moving into doing primary research,” Norwood explains. “Instead of reporting to the community data that we get from the insurers, from the hospitals, from the primary care offices, this is data that we get directly from the people themselves.”

Allegiance to The Regents

Norwood’s dedication to service has drawn him to issues that reach beyond this region. T. Andrew Brown, the managing partner of the law firm Brown Hutchinson LLP, has known him for more than 30 years.

“Wade is somebody who’s deeply committed not only to this community, but to the larger community around New York state,” Brown says.

The longtime friends serve on the New York State Board of Regents, where Brown is vice chancellor and Norwood is co-chairman of the common core learning standards work group and the standing committee on the professions. The Regents generally supervise all of the educational activities in New York state. Brown and Norwood have joined with others on the board to address the educational needs of boys and young men of color.

“Often, that has been a category of student that has struggled for one reason or another,” Brown says. “We have sought (state) funding so as to try to address some of those concerns.”

Through those efforts, the Regents have helped convince New York state to increase the funds it annually devotes to addressing those issues by more than $20 million per year.

“Those monies have led to improvements in the lives and opportunities of boys and young men of color,” Brown says. “Many will undoubtedly live much more productive lives as a result of the programming that flows from those monies.”

In addition to seeking to improve the health of the Finger Lakes region’s residents, Norwood also serves the community through his faith. Since 2009, he’s been the president and senior pastor of Rochester’s Holy Jerusalem Spiritual Church. Walisa Griffin, his younger sister, works alongside him as the church’s secretary and youth minister.

“I hit the trifecta with him as my brother,” she says. “I have him as my brother, I have him as a mentor and I have him as a pastor.”

That’s not to say that Norwood can do everything he tries to do. When he babysat for her, he demonstrated that he could never have a career as a hair stylist.

“My brother is really great at doing a lot of things. Doing little girls’ hair is not one,” she says, laughing. “Often, the two ponytails that were supposed to be evenly on each side of my head ended up anything but.”

In the coming years, Norwood plans to continue helping Common Ground determine how poverty and other social factors affect the health of the Finger Lakes region’s residents.

“I would like to continue to bring in more data that gets to these upstream factors that are the social determinants of health,” he says.

On his off time, Norwood loves cracking open a good book. In addition to fantasies, his tastes include works about American history. One book he’s working his way through is “The Second Founding.” In it, historian Eric Foner details the long-term effects of the Reconstruction period upon the advance of civil rights in the United States.

“If we did a better job of teaching the Reconstruction and how it ended, we might be in a better position to tackle the demons of our own history,” Norwood says.

Lisa recently got him to put down his book and walk a stretch of the Erie Canal’s trails with her. They made the jaunt to gather information for Common Ground’s assessment of the health benefits that those trails can confer. Both of them enjoyed the experience.

“I was incredibly struck by how knowledgeable my wife is about the canal trail west of the Genesee River,” he says. “My wife sent an email to my staff asking ‘Can you give us more locations to do?’”

Common Ground will present its data to the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which will use it for planning purposes.

More Than a Boss

The late Assemblyman David Gantt was more than just Wade Norwood’s employer.

“In many, many ways he was my second dad,” Norwood says.

When Norwood was hunting for a house for his family in the 19th Ward, his boss helped him navigate the process of buying a home. Then, Gantt and his brother Freddie replaced the house’s furnace. Norwood only had to cover the cost of the appliance.

“Every time I step into the door of this home, I am reminded of the incredible regard and patience that he showed to help us find a home in which we could raise our children,” Norwood says.

He remained close to Gantt after leaving his employ.

“Even after I left working for David, he was an incredible resource, guide and friend that helped me build my career in health and health planning,” Norwood says. The assemblyman died on July 1 at the age of 78.

Norwood’s years before Common Ground were not without their travails. Lisa, his wife, had to be hospitalized for part of her second pregnancy when she was bearing twins. One of the girls, Crystal Grace, died in the uterus. The second child, Tiffany Grace, was born with cerebral palsy, and died at the age of 8. Both events affected the family.

“The fact that we are a family marked by grief and a family marked by special needs parenting is a huge part of defining who we are as individuals, and as a family,” Norwood says.

He thinks of those days when problems arise.

“The things that challenge me when I awaken every morning really pale in comparison to burying children and fearing the need to bury my wife,” he says. “It makes me an optimistic soul.”

Norwood and his wife are also the parents of two grown children, Stephen Christopher and Julia.

Wade Norwood: 5 Things You May Not Know

1. Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground Health in Rochester, is a longtime Buffalo Bills fan.

2. He and his father used to sing gospel at churches around the area.

3. Norwood, his wife Lisa, their two grown children and Wade’s sister Walisa Griffin are all University of Rochester alumni.

4. Norwood’s brother Wayne hosts “The World of Gospel” radio show on Sunday mornings on station WRUR.

— Though he can run a large nonprofit, Norwood still can’t do a little girl’s hair.