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Online forum on diversity and inclusion attracts more than 750 from VUMC community

Jun. 11, 2020, 8:12 AM

by Bill Snyder


“We stand at a crossroad,” C. Wright Pinson, MBA, MD, Deputy CEO and Chief Health System Officer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said Friday during an online discussion with the VUMC community.

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its fourth month, as millions of Americans are out of work, and as the country is gripped by the deaths of black citizens in police custody, this can be a time of fear, resignation and passivity.

“Or it can be a time of growth,” Pinson said, “growth in terms of taking a long honest look at our own behaviors to see where we can do better … and committing to take positive action to improve lives and restore hope.”

André Churchwell, MD

Led by André Churchwell, MD, Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Vanderbilt University and Chief Diversity Officer at VUMC, the hour-long conversation, spurred by the nation grappling with the death of George Floyd and other black Americans, was meant to encourage members of the VUMC community to discuss racism and unconscious bias, and offer an opportunity to support and engage with each other during this particularly difficult time.

More than 750 people joined the conversation, and many of them submitted online comments and questions to a diverse panel of VUMC leaders. A common theme was how leadership can acknowledge and respond in appropriate and helpful ways to the tumult of emotions experienced by many of their employees.

“What I’ve recently been hearing from different professions throughout the campus is that individuals feel voiceless … because of fear that they will be perceived as a stereotype,” said Quianda Harris, EdD, LCP-MHSP, clinical counselor in the Work/Life Connections-Employee Assistance Program.

Some feel frightened when they’re on call and are walking from the parking garage to the hospital, Churchwell added. “Black people have to live a double life,” he said.

In the early 1980s while driving from his home in Nashville to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta where he was an intern, Churchwell was arrested by local police on a false charge of speeding in a small town in Georgia known as a haven for the Ku Klux Klan.

He was released only after he showed the officers his doctor’s white coat embroidered with his name and the letters “MD.” But the tension remains. “I have a little twinge,” Churchwell said, “whenever I have to leave the house at 11 p.m. or 1 a.m. (to go to the hospital).”

That prompted a question: “How do we build mutual respect and trust as a society?”

“My advice has been to people: stop being silent,” said the Rev. Cordell Simpson, MDiv, DDiv, chaplain at Vanderbilt University Hospital and Vanderbilt Health and pastor of Nashville’s Eighth Street Missionary Baptist Church. “Let (others) know how you feel, what you’re thinking. Help them move from this.”

“We’ve got to get to know each other on a personal level,” added Kimberly Vinson, MD, associate professor of Otolaryngology and associate dean for Diversity at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “You can build trust and (then) you can begin to have some of those difficult conversations.”

How can we keep conversations focused on human rights and not politics?

“Talk about people, what we’re trying to accomplish,” suggested Kate Payne, JD, RN, NC-BC, associate professor of Nursing in the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society. “You’ve got to find some common ground.”

How am I to turn my brain off when every hour I’m beaten down?

“Self care is so important,” Simpson said. “In order to take of others, we must take care of ourselves … I’ve had a lot of mistreatment because of my color, but I don’t allow it to make me bitter … I transform it to make me better.”

It goes both ways, of course. White colleagues and managers also must reach out and listen, and keep on reaching out, even after the current troubles have passed.

“We have to be ready to listen and recognize it’s about continuous dialogue,” said Jim Kendall, LCSW, manager of the Work/Life Connections-Employee Assistance Program. “We will all have erred if in two weeks we’re still not addressing this. If in two months we’re still not addressing this, then shame on us.”

“I challenge you,” Churchwell added. “I call it the rule of five. Look at your hand. Excluding family members and significant others, count off who are the most intimate people in your life that you talk to when you have challenging problems.

“If they’re all from the same race, ethnicity or gender, you have work to do,” he said.

What is VUMC going to do to increase the number of under-represented minorities who are recruited or promoted to leadership roles?

During the past decade, utilizing a codified diversity plan for increasing the percentage of underrepresented minorities in the residency applicant pool, “we have seen a substantive rise in the diversity of our residency programs,” Churchwell said. “They’re the next generation of leaders,” he said.

More than 6,000 people have been trained in the Medical Center’s unconscious bias program, which helps them recognize and overcome the engrained stereotypes and assumptions about others that negatively affect their decision-making and relationships.

In the past year a new level of training has been implemented. Called “inclusive excellence,” it helps leaders look past ethnicity and consider only a person’s qualities and qualifications when considering him or her for a position.

“We have more work to do,” Churchwell acknowledged. “But we’re better than we were.”

In her remarks, Meg Rush, MD, President of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt and professor of Clinical Pediatrics, said, “Now is a time for this community, this VUMC family, to dig deep, to try to shine our light, to each find ways to spread kindness … and promote justice.”

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