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Panel continues conversation on racism, encourages speaking up

Jun. 30, 2020, 4:06 PM

By Bill Snyder

One month after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis while in police custody, the conversation about racism and the impact of Floyd’s death continues at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC).

Adding to a growing number of town halls, departmental forums and small group meetings, a second virtual, enterprise-wide panel discussion was held last week for the larger VUMC community.

“You can’t have too many of these forums,” said VUMC Chief Diversity Officer, André Churchwell, MD, who introduced the discussion on June 23. “If you stop working at it every day, it loses traction.”

A dozen mixed hands stacked up on top of the American national flag.

“VUMC is committed to making diversity and inclusion intentional,” said C. Wright Pinson, MBA, MD, Deputy CEO and Chief Health System Officer at VUMC. “Engaging in a session like this is important … to grow and learn from each other. These are necessary discussions for us to find the path forward.”

“I really want to thank our colleagues of color who have generously shared very painful personal stories … to help us understand the scope of the problem,” added Jim Kendall, LCSW, manager of the VUMC Work/Life Connections-Employee Assistance Program.

Yet the challenge of sharing – and understanding – is formidable.

“As coworkers and leaders we have to be open to listening,” noted Kecia Carroll, MD, MPH, associate professor of Pediatrics and director of Faculty Inclusion and Diversity in the Pediatrics Department.

“Historically, when people are brave enough to tell their stories, … more often than not they’re met with disbelief,” she said. “People can’t imagine something like that happening.”

“What I’ve heard from employees across campus is they may have tried to speak up before and did not feel supported and so they are reluctant to say anything again,” added Quianda Harris, EdD, LCP-MHSP, clinical counselor in the Work/Life Connections-Employee Assistance Program. “They don’t trust that anything is going to happen.”

Leaders have to be “extraordinarily authentic,” said Churchwell, who also is Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Vanderbilt University. Leaders must provide a trustworthy “safe space” where their employees can share their feelings and experiences without fear of being shut down.

During the hour-long conversation, panelists responded to several questions submitted online and moderated by Kate Payne, JD, RN, NC-BC, associate professor in the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society.

In response to a question about how VUMC can become more diverse, Marilyn Dubree, MSN, RN, NE-BC, Executive Chief Nursing Officer at VUMC, said efforts are underway to encourage more minorities to apply for nursing and other staff positions.

“As leaders we have to be really intentional,” she said. “We need to seek people. We have to provide opportunities because that doesn’t happen on its own.”

In the area of recruiting medical students and residents, videos are being produced to provide information to candidates that – before the age of COVID-19 – were given in person. Another effort under consideration is unconscious bias training for admissions committee members, particularly as interviews have moved online.

In response to a question about reporting unprofessional behavior, Meg Rush, MD, president of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, encouraged employees to use the Veritas system.

“There is a lot of fear of retaliation if the Veritas system is used,” Rush acknowledged, but reports can be made anonymously. “It elevates to the leaders … that there is a problem,” she said. “If we don’t hear that, then we can’t intentionally do anything about it.”

Yet employees of color in largely white work groups may be reluctant to report racist incidents.

“It’ll be easy for someone to know who made the report because I’m the only one in my group,” Harris pointed out. “So I don’t say anything because I don’t want be ostracized.”

In his remarks, the Rev. Cordell Simpson, MDiv, DDiv, chaplain at Vanderbilt University Hospital and Vanderbilt Health, read the VUMC Chaplain Covenant Regarding Racial Injustice, based on a recent statement from the Association of Professional Chaplains.

“Everywhere we see injustice and violence, let us confront and expose it,” Simpson read. “May our non-violent action and leadership assist in shifting our culture toward healing and wholeness.”

“It’s really difficult, but you actually can do it,” Payne concluded. “A lot of us feel guilty about making our black colleagues and friends tell us everything … but I think we’ve all realized that is where we start … It’s been honestly amazing.”

The video of the discussion can be found here.

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