Recognizing Martin Luther King Day: “We Cannot Walk Alone”

On Monday, January 18, people across the country will take some time to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as we have done every year since MLK Day was first observed in 1986. I think this year’s observance will be different for many of us as we reflect on the racial awakening and rallying cry for social justice that our country has experienced this past year, and in particular, in the wake of last week’s crisis at the U.S. Capitol. I know that it will be for me.

Acknowledging all that Dr. King stood for gives me an opportunity to reflect on the work we’ve done here at UMass Memorial Health Care since last summer. We have shined a light on the racial disparities we see in the field of health care, as well as brainstormed ideas on what we can do to make change happen for us as an organization and in our communities. As we honor Dr. King’s legacy, I want to share some thoughts on one of the activities I’m most proud of these past few months. 

Over the past six months, I hosted a series of almost a dozen listening sessions with our Employee Resource Groups, some of our system entities’ diversity committees, and by open invitation to all interested caregivers. The goal of these sessions was to have an honest and open dialogue about racism, diversity, equity and inclusion right here within our own organization and in the communities we serve. Here is a brief summary of some of the lessons I learned or that were reinforced during these sessions:

  1. Unconscious bias exists. We may not realize we have these biases toward a certain group, but they are ingrained in all of us without us realizing it. The only way to overcome unconscious bias is with conscious action.
  2. Take an equity pause. The consultant we worked with for these listening sessions, Valerie Zolezzi-Wyndham, taught us about the equity pause – taking the time before making a decision to think about what the impact of that decision might be on ALL community members. I and our Core Leadership team now take an equity pause before making major decisions for our system to consider what it might mean for communities of color or other groups that may be disenfranchised.
  3. The “Golden Rule” doesn’t apply. We shouldn’t treat people how we want to be treated, but rather we should treat them how they want to be treated. This came directly from one of our interpreters during one of our listening sessions and is a profound way to think about our Standards of Respect.
  4. Our caregivers want to make change happen. The groups I spoke with were incredibly engaged and eager to address the issues we face and come up with solutions. And I believe they represent many others throughout our system who want to do the same.

The bottom line is that significant change demands significant action. To advance our health equity work, we must move from a place of comfort to a place of getting better and striving for being exceptional. We must avoid doing the same thing the same way and expecting different results. Each of us must continue to expand our commitment as well as accelerate our momentum. 

I am grateful to all 14,000 of our UMass Memorial caregivers and members of our communities for joining me on this journey we’ve been on these last few months to uncover the issues and challenges when it comes to racism and inequity and think about what is possible to overcome these challenges so that UMass Memorial can become the best place to give care for ALL caregivers and the best place to get care for ALL patients.

I’ll close with this quote from Dr. King from his “I Have a Dream” speech that I think describes the journey we’re on together: “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”

Stay safe and well.

(follow me on Twitter @EricDicksonCEO)

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