Tomya Watt, Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President of Talent Acquisition & Mobility
“In order for our patients — all patients — to feel welcomed and supported, our workforce has to feel welcomed and supported. In 2020, leadership, including the Board, recognized there was much for them to learn and hear from our employees. They took the time to listen to issues in ways that maybe they hadn’t listened in the past. I think there’s been a dramatic shift in the organization’s attention and energy on issues of equality, diversity, and inclusion. We are focused on increasing representation in our patients; however, we also have to look at our workforce and work to close those gaps, as well.
My primary focus is our workforce — attracting and retaining employees. For example, during the 2008 recession, when so many people were unemployed, it was a best practice to add education requirements like a college degree to reach top talent. We found, however, that this created an artificial barrier, which ended up eliminating many people who could have made a meaningful contribution to MSK. Over time, we started removing the requirement. And in the summer of 2020, we made the commitment to remove educational requirements from all jobs unless required for a license or certification.
Additionally, we have to provide our existing employees with the best opportunities to develop their careers here at MSK and break down barriers to employment by attracting talent not necessarily from the places we’ve drawn from in the past.
However, I want to be clear that if we only focus on diversity, it can be perceived as a quota-driven solution. Instead, we have to focus on inclusion. In focusing on inclusion, we will use different tools and solutions — in other words, equity — to make sure that all employees feel respected, supported, and welcomed.
We established the MSK Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Council and the Governance Group. We have provided and will continue to provide workshops and learning programs to set the foundation and give us a common language. But it’s much less about programs and more about the individual. How do I come to work every day and value my colleagues, whether they are the same as or different from me? Ultimately, equality, diversity, and inclusion is everyone’s responsibility.
Together, we all play an important role in fulfilling our commitments to equality, diversity, and inclusion and holding each other and MSK accountable for creating a sense of inclusion.”
Yaihara Fortis Santiago, Associate Director, Office of Postdoctoral Affairs & Trainee Initiatives, SKI
“Change requires recognizing your own unconscious bias. For instance, in the sciences, when we are considering people for a position as a student or researcher, we tend to put weight on things that are subjective, like the prestige of the institutions where they studied.
But when two candidates have similar qualifications, giving the edge to an Ivy League education might be shortsighted. To come up with innovative ways to solve questions about cancer and biology, we need a diversity of ideas, backgrounds, and opinions at the table. We need to hear ideas from people who are sometimes marginalized or come from communities different than the majority of researchers.
We also need to recognize some of the unique contributions of faculty from underrepresented populations. Most of them are committed to opening the doors for the generation coming after them. They sacrifice their time and energy to mentor them and take on projects to help diversity. But that comes at a cost. While they are spending time and effort on those initiatives, their white peers are moving up the ladder because all they have to do is focus on their science. We need to better recognize their contributions and reward them.
Overall, I am hopeful about what’s happening at MSK — many people seem to be unlearning old ways of thinking, particularly after the social justice movements in the summer of 2020. People are raising their hands and saying, ‘How can I do better?’ And people’s reactions are constructive instead of defensive.”
Melody Smith, Hematologic Oncologist
“I’m of Afro-Caribbean heritage and I grew up in the South, in a town that’s still in large part divided by railroad tracks. For as long as I can remember, issues of race have always been present. I think that 2020 was one of the first times in my life where it seemed as though others have been really interested in these topics and in understanding some of the issues that still remain in this country.
I’m a physician-scientist whose work focuses on adult bone marrow transplant and cellular therapy, like CAR T cell therapy. Some of the main issues in my field are addressing access to care for people from diverse and underrepresented populations and finding strategies to make these treatments more affordable for a broader demographic of patients.
Medically, we’ve made a lot of advances in the last ten years to help people from underrepresented backgrounds who may not have many matches on donor lists for a bone marrow transplant. But unfortunately, many people from these backgrounds may not have access to insurance that will cover the cost of these lifesaving therapies. That’s one of many factors that fuel the disparity in cancer outcomes between white patients and those who are Black, Latinx, and other people of color.
I’m hopeful about change. But I also know that it requires persistence and can take time. One of my cousins on my mother’s side is one of the Greensboro Four, whose sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter on February 1, 1960, helped lead to the movement that integrated restaurants and businesses. Their sit-in marked its 60th anniversary in 2020. So much has changed in the years since, both in the country and at MSK. But there’s still a lot of progress that needs to be made.”
Ushma Neill, Vice President, Scientific Education & Training
“After the events in the summer of 2020, and the heightened consciousness about racial issues, it’s gratifying to see how many colleagues have raised their hands to help diversify the people who walk in our hallways, on every level. Just as important is creating a culture where people from all backgrounds feel included and valued.
In my field, one priority is making sure we attract more trainees from diverse backgrounds. MSK has over 3,000 scientific and clinical trainees, and the work they do is crucial to discoveries in our labs and clinical trials, to patient care, and to carrying out the MSK mission. Trainees are the backbone and will form the next generation of MSK.
Over the past few years, we’ve broadened our recruitment efforts to include a more diverse mix of schools and revisited the way we evaluate candidates. And we’re not waiting until people apply to MSK’s graduate programs. We are actively seeking participants from underrepresented backgrounds in our high school and college training programs. We also send our trainees as science ambassadors into New York City classrooms. We live in the most diverse area in the world — we should reflect that.”
Kreg Koford, Senior Vice President of Supply Chain and Sustaining Care Services
“As a healthcare provider, MSK purchases a tremendous amount of individual supplies, and it’s easy to go with the big, established companies. But over the last several years, MSK has made it a focus to attract a diverse group of suppliers, including companies owned by women, minorities, veterans, LGBTQ vendors, and other groups. And that commitment intensified in 2020. We are eager to continue this focus in 2021 and beyond.
MSK feels our suppliers should reflect our employees and patients. MSK also knows that when we have diverse, local suppliers we help strengthen the economic health of the communities we live in. So, we are reaching out to partner with local companies to help them develop the capacity to become our suppliers.
Mentoring companies can have real benefits in terms of innovation. For example, when COVID-19 first hit, we found that some local, diverse suppliers were able to transition quickly to producing PPE. These companies are often very nimble, and helping them become healthcare suppliers is good for us, for them, and for the communities we live in.”
Cornelius Taabazuing, Research Fellow, Sloan Kettering Institute
“As a research fellow, I’m in the transition phase between the postdoctoral and faculty stage. At each stage, as a diverse person, you see less and less people who look like you. The solutions are not simple. But I think MSK is making a focused and intentional effort to recruit and improve diversity so people who are currently underrepresented feel comfortable and feel their cultures and worldviews are accepted and respected. People need to see people like themselves succeed — it should be normal, not exceptional.
That feeling of being accepted and safe can’t be only at work. It has to extend to the rest of life too. That’s a larger systemic issue where MSK can also play a role. I was pulled over on my college campus a few times and searched for drugs and then let go when nothing was found. Statistically, people of color are likely to have more interactions with police than their white counterparts — many of which are negative experiences. Feeling safe and respected outside of work is vital to feeling that way inside work too.
It’s important to have institutions like MSK publicly say, ‘Look, this is what we believe in, this is our stance,’ and support politicians and laws that try to make our country more inclusive. Taking a stance like that is a risk — do you risk losing philanthropic support that doesn’t agree with your views? But if institutions like MSK, Columbia, Harvard, NYU, and others really want to make a difference, they need to work together and change government policies that permit racism. This will help the institutions and society overall.
At an individual level, I suggest people take ownership. Think of diversity as your own problem. ‘How can I solve it?’ Everybody at MSK is incredibly smart. Use those incredible minds to think of creative solutions and then project forward and say, ‘What do we want it to be like ten, 15 years from now?”
Monika Shah, Infectious Disease Physician and Chair, Graduate Medical Education Committee
“In my field, we are working on two big buckets. One is our workforce and making sure it’s diverse and that people who work at MSK feel valued and heard. The second is not only making sure that we care for a wide diversity of patients but also that we have the cultural sensitivity and competency to understand where our patients are coming from.
That’s really important in caring for people. And it’s not necessarily intuitive. We all have our own worldview based on our experiences, and it sometimes requires active thinking to truly understand someone who may be very different from us.
We know we can improve our sensitivity and understanding of other people through training. And we are expanding our training in these issues. Nearly 50% of our physicians were trained here at MSK, so taking active steps to make our trainees more diverse and more culturally aware will definitely be reflected in our future faculty.”
Jorge Capote, Vice President, Patient Relations, Hospital Administration
“I have the privilege of working directly with patients and their caregivers as an advocate. I also oversee our information desk, interpretation services, and patient recreation offerings to ensure that we are meeting the needs of our patient community. I learn from every patient encounter and summarize for leadership when we fall short on expectations. It’s a two-way street: What we do and how we do it is just as important for our patients as it is for our staff. The most important aspect is that we don’t lose our sense of humanity.
As our patient population becomes more diverse, our employee base should reflect that, too. As a leader of color, I am proof. We’re making sure our staff mirrors the diverse patient populations coming to Memorial Sloan Kettering. I’m fortunate to have been appointed as a member of the ED&I Council, which helps our leaders understand the issues and behaviors that drive equality, diversity, and inclusion.
We’re making a dedicated effort to educate employees on building better relationships. For example, MSK recently passed a policy formally denouncing racism and other uncivil behaviors. We’re also using a new module to properly train employees on equality, diversity, and inclusion. This is a game changer. Not realizing what behaviors we’ve condoned in the past was part of the problem.
We have challenges, sure, but we’re on a better path now. We’re on a path of awareness. Greater transparency and frank conversations are paramount to fixing the issues together. It’s not going to happen overnight, but if you look at the speed of implementation from the institution — at the height of a pandemic, no less — there’s a very strong commitment from senior leadership. To me, that is very reassuring.”