When expressions like “anti-woke” permeate the public discourse, Anna Brown, JD, doesn’t get discouraged — just the opposite. It’s a sign of hope, she says.
“Sometimes change and progress can make people feel uncomfortable,” said Brown, senior vice president and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Mass General Brigham, in responding to an audience question during the Brigham’s fall 2023 DE&I Town Hall. “The commitment here remains unchanged.”
It was a theme that resonated with others who attended and presented at the Sept. 7 forum, where leaders and staff strongly reaffirmed DE&I as a standing priority for the Brigham and across MGB, which will mark the third anniversary of United Against Racism this December.
“I’ve heard comments like, ‘Can’t we focus on other things?’ The answer is no. This is so important and crucial to who we are as a society and an organization,” said forum attendee Giles Boland, MD, president of the Brigham and Women’s Physicians Organization and executive vice president at MGB. “Only until we mean that and deliver on it can we truly say we are a holistic organization that cares for ourselves and our patients.”
Brown, who joined MGB earlier this year, discussed how leaders across the system and at individual entities are working to build a more diverse, inclusive and equitable environment for patients, staff and local communities.
“Looking at equity means finding what everybody needs, and the needs can be different for different groups,” Brown said.
Normella Walker, MA, CDP, executive director for the Office of DE&I and OMCOSS at the Brigham and vice president for Enterprise DE&I at MGB, highlighted the essential contributions of local DE&I committees and councils throughout the system.
“They really help us keep the pulse on what’s happening, cascade the work through the organization, solve problems and further our goals,” Walker said.
Employee resource groups (ERGs) — employee-led communities of staff who share common identities — also play a critical role in creating an environment where all staff feel safe and valued, she added.
“These are really important for employees coming from marginalized identities,” Walker explained. “There are spaces in our hospital where people feel very isolated — that don’t have a lot of diversity — so it’s valuable to have a group you can connect with, who you feel an affinity with and talk about what your experience is.”
Reflecting on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this summer reversing affirmative action in college admissions, Galen Henderson, MD, chief diversity and inclusion officer for faculty, trainees and students at the Brigham, emphasized the institution’s unwavering commitment to fostering a diverse, inclusive and supportive community for trainees.
“We plan to continue all our efforts. We know how important it is for society and our country to have diverse scientists as well as physicians,” Henderson said. “Patients have better outcomes when there are concordant practitioners, and that is really important. It’s up to us to make sure that we have the diverse workforce of the future.”
Applying an Equity Lens to Research
Later in the forum, presenters Claire-Cecile Pierre, MD, vice president of Community Health Programs at the Brigham, and Lindsey Baden, MD, vice president of Clinical Research at the Brigham, discussed the opportunities and challenges of uniting community health work with the academic research enterprise.
“Research is something we’re proud of, do so well and that transforms lives,” Pierre said. “But historically, we have, as a world of research, excluded people.”
Inclusive research takes more than enrolling participants from diverse backgrounds, Pierre explained. It also means applying an equity lens to every step of research, including which questions to investigate and how the study is designed and conducted, she added.
“There’s this question: ‘Is this research with us or on us? Are you studying us or asking us to help you discover something together?’” Pierre said.
The Brigham has a tremendous opportunity to build on the successes of investigators who have been championing and laying the groundwork for a more equity-informed approach, she added.
“This includes the incredible work of researchers who have, for decades, engaged with communities —including Valerie Stone, Cheryl Clark, Nadia Raymond, Abigail Ortiz, Pivel Morton and Bruce Levy — and great interest from centers and institutes like the Division of Preventive Medicine and the Connors Center,” Pierre said.
Reflecting on his experiences developing a COVID-19 vaccine, Baden noted one big lesson was the importance of collaborating with community health centers to achieve this goal. But to make this model sustainable and scalable, it will require individual investigators to adopt new ways of working — such as seeking and incorporating community feedback — and the research enterprise to develop the necessary infrastructure to support it, he added.
“We need to figure out who the champions are, the most important questions and how to lower the ‘activation energy’ to have those studies where patients are — not just at the main campus,” Baden said. “Community feedback must be incorporated, or else the research is not being thoughtful.”