Memorial Sloan Kettering is committed to having conversations about discrimination, diversity, and inclusion, and creating change. People from across MSK share their personal experiences and insights.
Department of Anesthesiology & Critical Care Medicine, Department of Medicine
Chair, Ethics Committee
“I was raised and went to medical school in Haiti and continued my training here in the United States.
Through many years at MSK, I’ve been struck by colleagues’ reaction to me — on the units, in the cafeteria, and many other places. I came to realize it’s because we don’t have many Black physicians, particularly Black male physicians.
As an institution, we need to create an environment that is truly diverse, both in the faculty and in the population we serve. I know that we provide such wonderful care, but too often Black and Hispanic folks and people of other races don’t have the opportunity to receive it.
Black and Hispanic patients combined are less than 15 percent of our patients. And yet, in New York City and the surrounding area, only 50 to 60 percent of the population is white, and the rest is Latinx, Black, Asian, and others. I’m not blaming MSK alone. But there is a lot that needs to be done in terms of creating services for people who should be coming to us at MSK. We should create a more ethical and equitable environment.”
Director, Regulatory Oversight & Product Development
Clinical Research Administration
Research and Technology Management
“I’ve been at MSK for 21 years. I started as a session assistant, helping patients during visits, and advanced from there. For me, MSK is a wonderful place. I believe competence is valued, and I’ve had many advocates and mentors — often people who don’t look like me.
But MSK is not perfect, and it’s not immune to the discrimination and systemic racism that are part of the national dialogue, especially after the killing of George Floyd. I believe there should be more people of color as patients and leaders here. And I’ve seen talented people of color leave MSK. Issues of inclusion may have played some part.
However, I’m an eternal optimist. I think there are many people at MSK whose hearts are in the right place and who recognize the richness that diversity adds and that it can make MSK even more successful. And I know from my own experience that there are leaders at MSK who are committed to making a difference. There will be soul-searching and sacrifices. But I believe that ultimately, we will come out of this time being a lot better.”
“I grew up in a small town in Puerto Rico called Aguadilla. For generations, when my family has needed cancer care, we traveled to New York to Memorial Sloan Kettering. When I was asked to join MSK, I was proud to join its long tradition of excellence and innovation.
One of my favorite aspects of working in New York is having the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. Patient and staff diversity foster an enhanced academic environment, as creativity and discovery come when people with different skills, experiences, and points of view meet to solve complex problems. I love learning from patients and seeing the strong bonds they form with staff — especially when they find someone they can identify and really connect with.
Sometimes that connection is formed through a shared language. I experienced that with an unforgettable couple — we bonded as fellow Spanish speakers. They even asked me to be the matron of honor at their wedding. By continuing to weave together this quilt that represents our community, we strengthen MSK.”
Lead Assistant General Counsel,
Research and Technology Management
“I would encourage people to remember all flavors of diversity: racial, ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic, gender, sexual orientation, and more. A person’s experiences with discrimination or tolerance can inform the way that person thinks and acts. For instance, I appreciate the welcoming environment at MSK, where I can proudly display candid photos of me and my husband. Previously, as a lawyer in private practice, I was hesitant to do things like that for fear of prejudice or castigation.
I identify as sexually fluid and as an American of Chinese descent; it’s good that diversity is top of mind these days. The Black Lives Matter movement is important because it encourages people to not tolerate discriminatory behavior, whether overt or passive, and it makes folks more vocal about identifying as allies.
I feel that there is not enough dialogue on what changes need to be made in society and the workplace to ensure that people of minority backgrounds feel comfortable and are able to overcome the biases they face. There needs to be more focus on action — not just awareness.
As one example in the LGBTQ space, an important issue we need to manage better is the proper care and treatment of our transgender patients as well as transgender staff.”
Associate Director, Outpatient Operations,
MSK Ralph Lauren Center
“My mother is Puerto Rican and my father is Cuban. My ethnicity is a huge source of pride. It is rich in racial diversity and culture, but can also cause painful discrimination. I often wonder why we as humans tend to label other people and highlight differences instead of celebrating our similarities, even though we recognize that we all want the same thing — the best for ourselves and our loved ones. Perhaps it is the fear of the unknown.
Being the only nonwhite person in a meeting is common, and I wonder how that can be in 2020. Possibly because people reach out to colleagues that they have a relationship with, and those relationships are part of professional development and promotions. I don’t think a white colleague would feel quite the same worry about belonging, and I would encourage people to be more welcoming and inviting to people of different backgrounds.
I moved recently from working in the Department of Neurosurgery to work at the MSK Ralph Lauren Center in Harlem. I live in Harlem, and the idea of serving my own community is very exciting. This also means I can spend more time with our three daughters. I want to make sure they have the opportunity to compete with anyone, at the highest standards, like we have at MSK.”
Security Guard II (Memorial Hospital), Facilities Management
“I came to America from Guinea, in Africa, 15 years ago and have worked at MSK for nine years. When a new employee is hired and joins MSK, I make their ID card. I get to meet all kinds of people.
The killing of George Floyd was a tragedy and made me upset. It was clear the people who did it didn’t value human life. Just because someone has power does not mean they can kill a person like an animal.
I am Black and Muslim, and although I have not personally faced racism or discrimination, I think that the reason discrimination is such a problem in America is because people forget that everyone has a role to play in our society. Sometimes when people at MSK forget their ID cards, they say, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ I tell them, ‘Yes, I know who you are, but there is a procedure we all have to follow.’ Too many people think the rules don’t apply to us all equally, but if you think of other people as part of the same team as you, you will treat them with respect.”
YAIHARA FORTIS SANTIAGO
Associate Director, Office of Postdoctoral Affairs & Trainee
Diversity Initiatives, Sloan Kettering Institute
“I came from Puerto Rico to pursue my PhD in neuroscience, and I experienced the cultural shock of being a minority student. In Puerto Rico, I never had to think about how other people saw me when I entered a room. In the United States, I learned that students and scientists of color experience barriers. For me, one barrier was language, because English is not my first language, and I really struggled a lot in graduate school trying to be comfortable in a language that wasn’t my own.
Barriers can make scientists who are Black, Latinx, Native American, or from another culture feel that they don’t have a place and that they have to pretend to be something they are not. The reality is that we need different approaches, voices, and ideas to come to the best solution for a problem. That’s particularly true in cancer care and the development of new technologies.
We all want to believe that science is a meritocracy system, where the best and the brightest are always going to succeed, no matter the color of their skin. But it doesn’t work like that. There are systemic differences in resources and education.
I am committed to helping mentor and train scientists, particularly trainees of color. We need to help them develop the skills that will help them succeed.”
Associate Director, Quality and Safety Systems
“I grew up in New York City and the Long Island suburbs. The killing of George Floyd was painful. I’m not one to show much emotion, but I cried in front of my parents, wife, and children. Structures like the justice system — which are supposed to protect us — have very different outcomes for people like me. I think more people are understanding that racism is not a figment of anyone’s imagination. Even in 2020, racism is very real.
My work at MSK involves measuring patient outcomes and quality of care. I feel my work is valued by leadership, which I’m happy about. However, people should understand how isolating it can be as a minority in the workplace. Are you free to speak up? Do you feel heard?
I’m hopeful the country becomes more tolerant. I have to be hopeful. I hope my sons — who are 2 and 5 — grow into adulthood in a time that’s more sensitive and culturally aware. I’m also hopeful about MSK’s commitment to being more diverse and helping underserved populations. As an analyst of data, I know we can measure these things and make sure we make progress. Our mission is global. Our outlook must be too.”
Are you an MSK student, staff person, or faculty member who wants to share your story? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.