Advancing Inclusivity Through Local, Diverse Leadership

April 03, 2023 | ASTHO Staff

coworkers-meeting-group-activity.jpgPublic health leadership is essential at the local level, especially given the close relationships local health departments foster within their communities. At the same time, local leaders are critical to impacting the community’s health. Such impact manifests in vaccination clinics, advocacy work in state legislatures, public forums held to increase awareness of a specific community need, and more. When it comes to local leadership, messengers are most impactful when they are trusted because their shared life experience makes them keenly aware of the needs of the communities they serve.

ASTHO’s Diverse Executives Leading in Public Health (DELPH) scholars represent some of the brightest emerging public health leaders within state and local health departments. We invited five DELPH scholars to provide examples of how community and diversity shape their leadership within their local health department and to share recommendations for creating a more inclusive workplace.

Importance of Diversity in Leadership at the Local Level

It wasn’t until I got into public health that I learned my neighborhood was in a food desert, and that’s not even touching the crime and other factors. Where I grew up, violence was never even viewed as a public health issue. So, as I’ve grown in my career, working specifically with HIV/STD disease intervention, I’ve learned that it is important for people like me to be at the table advocating and making decisions.

A lot of my clients look like me, my family, my friends, and the people in my neighborhood. Often, the people making decisions that greatly impact funding and policy efforts have never faced the obstacles of our community members, such as those disproportionately impacted by the HIV epidemic and the resurging syphilis outbreak.

Ensuring that there is representation from throughout the community at the table and that they have a voice is how leadership shows up at the local level. Diversity in local leadership brings about leaders with tremendous insight about the communities they serve and in the public policies they create.

I’ve learned so much by speaking with my colleagues from different backgrounds. Whether I’m listening to a colleague in recovery talk about engaging individuals struggling with substance use disorder or a colleague with a disability providing guidance on making mass COVID-19 clinics more accessible, I know my department is strengthened by the insight of leaders who have a shared experience with the community.

In my own professional experience, the strongest teams contain leaders who are not afraid to offer and receive varying points of view. If our mission is to serve our communities by promoting public health, then we need to provide a variety of perspectives that represent the public we serve. It also requires everyone to be willing to listen, truly listen, and consider others’ perspectives.

DELPH Scholars Reflect on Local Leadership Experiences

During the 2022 mpox outbreak, I saw firsthand how important it is to approach health crises equitably from the beginning. When our health department received an allotment of the vaccine, we did not have a high number of African American men who have sex with men express interest in the mpox vaccine, but they represented the highest number of cases.

It is important for me as a diverse leader to go back to the drawing board when our approach isn’t working, offer suggestions and expertise to other programs that need assistance, and speak up when things are not aligning with our goals to put the communities that we serve first. As a health department, we provide accessible and affordable care, but our efforts to serve the community will be in vain if we do not listen to what the community needs and include them in our plans to improve our care and prevention efforts.

As a leader, I try to cultivate development programs that improve the wellbeing of disadvantaged minority communities. It’s important for leaders to have values and beliefs that are consistent with community needs and concerns. This is rather valuable to support and impact policy change. For example, I’ve been working closely with the health disparities program to address the obstacles and limited funding resources for cultural differences and underrepresented groups. While networking with the community helps us connect with private organizations, we try to get involved to influence the outcomes of needed policy changes.

An incredible learning experience occurred for me early in my career. As a new public health educator, I had the task of establishing health screenings in a low income, mostly African American neighborhood. I remember being intimidated by the fact that I was completely different from the population I was working with. My main point of contact was an elderly African American woman who grew up in the neighborhood. Her neighborhood was facing issues with drug trafficking and prostitution. I thought I had no way of identifying with her.

What I found after listening to her was that she was incredibly passionate about bettering her community. She wanted her community to be safe and healthy. This was something I could identify with, and as we worked together, I gained an incredible respect for her power and influence in the community. Her voice, not mine, was the influence we needed to ensure the services we offered for the community were what was truly needed. Over 20 years later, I still remember the valuable lessons I learned from this fantastic community leader.

Advice For Building a More Inclusive Workplace

When undertaking diversity initiatives, there will be a fear of change. To overcome this, you need to have strong leadership. As a leader, it’s important to work towards increasing organizational ethics and to conduct assessments to determine where there are shortfalls in promoting diversity.

The impact I contribute to the workplace is adopting new norms that emphasize the importance of racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity in our work environment. These contributions lead to improvements in hiring and retaining diverse populations, making a concerted effort to recruit from underrepresented groups, and supporting them to succeed.

As a diverse leader within my department, I am intentional about working with my team to incorporate diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in their everyday work. I strive to set an example of what it looks like to embody these values.

For example, I purposefully print and hang monthly heritage posters within our suite, so my team can visually see people and cultures that look like them. When going through my onboarding process with new staff, I intentionally ask what cultural holidays they celebrate, so as a team, we can celebrate those cultural holidays with them and develop a sense of inclusion and belonging. I encourage my staff, when meeting new partners, to always ask the pronunciation of that partner’s name first instead of guessing, as it can differ from person to person. And by asking the pronunciation of their name first, it shows respect and cultural responsiveness toward them.

Doing this work internally as staff bleeds into how we, as a public health department, build relationships and partnerships within our communities, especially our historically underrepresented communities. Through practicing these values internally, we can have authentic and honest conversations with external organizations because we are collaborating with them by showing humility, cultural awareness, respect, compassion, and empathy. These values allow us to be present and actively listen to their concerns and how we can help support their current efforts and collaboratively find solutions to challenges and concerns.