Infusing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Into State Public Health Agencies: Perspectives from Connecticut, New York, and Tennessee

May 07, 2024 | Samia Hussein, Erika Kirtz, Jannae Parrott

A diverse group of women are seated in the audience during a presentation, they have shifted to look at the off-camera speakerA diverse public health workforce is essential for organizations to offer equitable access to care and address the many social and political factors affecting health. Public health agencies are most robust when they mirror the diversity of the communities they serve, as this enables them to access and share resources with the community and other stakeholders more easily through established connections. Therefore, infusing Diversity, Equity, and inclusion (DEI) into multiple levels of state and local public health agencies is vital. In a LinkedIn Study, 76% of employees indicated that diversity is essential when considering a job, and 80% of survey respondents indicated they want to work for a company that values diversity. With the recent resignation wave hitting many state and local public health agencies, the need for authentic attraction of new employees who share our DEI values is more urgent than ever. It is time for public health practitioners to transform the systems to be more inclusive and structured to provide the necessary resources and interventions to all individuals, especially the most vulnerable.

As Diverse Executives Leading in Public Health (DELPH) Scholars, we value this DEI conversation centered around equity within the workplace. Our leadership development program has allowed us to connect with others working on this same effort nationwide. Together, we have learned valuable lessons as we implement DEI at our health agencies and are eager to share them with you. This collective effort and shared purpose drive us in our DEI journey.

State Perspectives on Addressing DEI

Connecticut: Samia Hussein

The Office of Multicultural Health Equity (OMHE) was established in 1996 as an appointed office by the then Commissioner to create health equity programs and initiatives that address our staff and client needs, including establishing our Statewide Multicultural Advisory Council (MCAC). Recently, in Connecticut, the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and the Commission on Racial Equity in Public Health co-hosted a statewide symposium titled “Cementing Equity in State Government” that launched the results of two fundamental equity studies across the state. The studies are a result of legislation passed declaring racism a public health crisis. The first step in our DEI journey was to ensure a foundation of definitions, terms, and a safe space for dialogue around shared experiences, which can lead to culture change. This was accomplished through buy-in from leadership by consulting with a full-service DEI agency, Kaleidoscope Group, based in Chicago. The Commissioner, Executive Leadership Team, and Union Leadership collaborated in offering this mandatory full-day DEI training to our entire agency (~3400 staff). OMHE and MCAC create a shared three-year strategic plan that is a vehicle for making a substantial DEI impact (e.g., reviewing health inequities) and provides recommendations for the Commissioner through programs/initiatives and policy changes. It is imperative to collaborate with multiple internal and external stakeholders to have a pulse on DEI issues. This existing infrastructure allowed OMHE to oversee this training mandate and continue advancing DEI programs statewide. Our preliminary data for DEI training has shown that nearly 80% of staff reported the training as a worthwhile investment, and 82.1% strongly agree that they will apply the knowledge and skills learned from the training at their workplace. We continue to look at client data points for behavioral health inequities and address DEI concerns collaboratively.

New York: Jannae Parrott

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) has embraced a proactive and inclusive strategy to tackle DEI by prioritizing integrating health equity and anti-racism throughout the agency. This work is primarily supported and driven by the New York City Board of Health resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. At DOHMH, the first step was to launch an agency-wide initiative to empower staff with the knowledge and tools to effectively address racial health disparities and enhance health outcomes for all New Yorkers. This initiative involves educating and training staff on how racism and other oppressive systems can impact healthcare, analyzing how racism may have influenced our past work, establishing new policies to mitigate such influences, and collaborating with local communities to explore additional strategies for combating systemic injustice. DOHMH will soon launch a new data equity skills training course to engage staff at all levels in applying practical data equity skills. Its objectives include fostering awareness of the importance of data equity, providing tools and training for people who work with data to enhance equity in data practices, and offering resources for staff involved in data-informed decision-making. Additionally, DOHMH has initiated comprehensive internal reforms aimed at dismantling silos and modernizing our data systems. This transformative process enables the agency to advance the linkage of public health, healthcare, and social service data, ultimately enhancing our understanding and efforts to improve population health.

Tennessee: Erika Kirtz

The Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) has been strategic in its approach to addressing DEI in the state. We have shifted our language to focus on eliminating disparities, which is the central focus of our equity work. A key priority is overcoming limitations in our data and surveillance systems to detect disparities in vulnerable populations better. Offices within TDH are linking multiple datasets to gather demographics and risk factors to understand how to serve the populations best. For example, the Healthcare-Associated Infections and Antimicrobial Resistance (HAI/AR) program in TDH has implemented processes to link surveillance datasets to secondary data sources (inpatient and outpatient hospital discharge data, etc.) to gather information on demographics that aid in the understanding of risk factors associated with the acquisition of certain multi-drug resistant organisms. The findings from this data linkage allow the team to pinpoint risk factors that can be overcome with targeted interventions. We have also begun breaking down silos to collaborate across offices and divisions on the various equity-related initiatives. The overall goal is to transform the current systems to operate through an equity lens, which will be standard practice throughout TDH. There is also a push to continue diversifying the workforce by actively recruiting interns and staff from local Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other institutions with minority populations. The TDH’s central office is in Nashville, TN, near two prominent HBCUs: Tennessee State University and Meharry Medical College. TDH staff have attended job fairs and specifically sent notifications to faculty at these institutions to help recruit for internships, fellowships, and employment. TDH’s approach is to remove the negative stigma around the term equity, which allows our department to continue serving the people of Tennessee.

Call to Action

The work of DEI can be challenging, and there is no specific blueprint for addressing it. However, we want to share key takeaways and lessons from this process.

  • It is imperative to have leadership buy-in and support early in the process. The work will not be prioritized if it does not start with the Commissioner and the Executive Leadership Team. Also, this process is not one-size-fits-all and requires a clear vision. The first step is establishing a clear baseline of health equity measures to assess progress continuously. Guidance from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation can assist in measuring equity in your state.
  • Review what other agencies are doing to adopt best practices that can be applied to your agency. Please note that this process is not for one person and requires a diverse and dedicated team to champion this work.
  • This process requires financial investment through consulting, training, or hiring core staff. There will be many people who are resistant to change or critical of this work. Remember the why and the importance of these practices. Use data to support decisions and stick to the strategies or action plans that lead to success. Also, identify key partners committed to this work and use each other to overcome challenges.
  • Understanding the political landscape and concerns these initiatives might evoke is vital. These concerns can be overcome by being proactive in communicating the benefits and importance of this work, building relationships and awareness of social inequities, and inviting all employees to play a role in advocating for the advancement of DEI.
  • When considering diversity and inclusion, we must think beyond gender, race, and ethnicity. Consider understanding the makeup of the diverse communities served. Expand upon client and staff demographic data. Even if the Federal and State demographics may be limited, take the initiative to be inclusive of other identities when collecting data. In the workplace, keep an up-to-date calendar of holidays and observances to send to staff to learn more about diversity dimensions beyond gender and race.