For over 130 years, Sentara Healthcare has cared for some of the most diverse communities in Virginia and North Carolina. We believe our differences are our strengths, and as a result have always prided ourselves on our equally diverse teams and the work we do within our communities.
In mid-2019, we decided to formalize our commitment by intentionally fostering a culture of inclusion, creating a diversity and inclusion program led by our first chief diversity officer, Dana Beckton. We also set our strategy to impact anyone who interacts with Sentara.
Some examples of our early work include:
- Forming essential partnerships to maximize community impact. This includes partnering with local community and faith-based leaders to offer free services and educational opportunities to people in underserved communities.
- Establishing diversity councils at all 12 of our hospitals chaired by the hospital presidents, as well as a system-wide executive diversity council led by Sentara President and CEO Howard P. Kern.
- Implementing internal policies and procedures to protect and support LGBTQ employees and patients, and bolstering them with leader training.
- Developing a series of internal virtual “Safe Space” conversations that allow employees to learn, discuss and ask questions, judgment-free, about sensitive issues that affect them at work and at home.
The goal was to get complete buy-in. When executives view diversity and inclusion as a facet of the organization’s overall strategy and goals rather than one person’s or one team’s responsibility, they create accountability and model a culture that allows that organization to thrive.
It’s also important to understand our workforce, workplace and organizational culture to create a solid foundation from which to build. That understanding helped identify where we could have the most impact.
These and other efforts produced immediate, tangible results.
In 2020, all 12 Sentara hospitals earned a “Leader in LGBTQ Healthcare Equality” designation from the Human Rights Campaign’s Healthcare Equality Index. Forbes named Sentara a 2020 Best Employer for Women.
The pandemic highlighted significant inequities within our diverse communities and created an opportunity to address these issues further. Our partnerships with key community organizations allowed us to administer over 15,000 free COVID-19 tests over six months and more than 69,000 COVID-19 vaccines to patients and community members between Jan. 20 and April 12, 2021.
Those partnerships also provided 100,000 boxes of food and a pilot educational program for underemployed individuals. We hope the pilot program will remove barriers and create pathways into healthcare and other skilled career opportunities for a more diverse workforce.
Our Safe Space conversations have emerged as a trusted channel for employees to engage in difficult discussions. The first sessions were about George Floyd and police violence. We also hosted sessions centered on myths and sources of distrust about the COVID-19 vaccines. Hundreds of employees attend these sessions, during which they can listen to trusted voices discuss the topic, ask questions in a chat and get honest answers in real time. We are currently preparing sessions about continued social unrest and acts of violence.
More important than celebrating our early successes, however, is our commitment to sustaining and expanding on them. Diversity and inclusion is not a goal. It is a continuous striving for better and for more, for everyone, whether they work for Sentara, are receiving care from Sentara, or live in the neighborhoods we serve. As we look ahead, it is clear that our successes will continue to derive from intentional and culturally ingrained strategies that amplify diverse voices both inside and outside our walls.