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Mohini Venkatesh

, National Council for Behavioral Health

Diversity: It Has to Start Somewhere

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We’ve all heard it before: A diverse workforce is key to providing quality services to a diverse population. More specifically, promoting staff from diverse backgrounds into leadership positions is a must to ensure organizational decisions are made in an inclusive way.

As soon as you hear these statements, several thoughts probably run through your head (at least it did for me): “Thinking about organizations hiring practices is too far downstream — we need to focus on undergraduate and graduate programs, and encourage students of diverse backgrounds to apply their skills to majors that lead to the behavioral health professions.” Or, “As an executive, I can’t offer jobs to people who don’t apply. And, how am I supposed to promote staff of diverse backgrounds into leadership positions if I can’t provide competitive salaries and benefits?” Or how about the ever-so-common scenario of hiring someone into a leadership position who brings diversity and is highly-qualified across the board, tapping into their strengths for a short while, only to see them resign due to an incredible job opportunity or other life circumstances. Back to square one.

In undergraduate school, I served on a university work group focused on increasing student diversity. We had incredible, eye-opening conversations that spanned student life, faculty issues, and university administration challenges impeding our ability to improve our (lack of) diversity numbers. One of the most common themes of our conversation? The real trouble is the economic, geographic, and racial disparities that limit certain populations from attending colleges and universities that have strong faculty and resources to train students to choose and succeed in majors that tend to be feeder programs for community behavioral health. So really, addressing this issue at the university level is too far downstream. Back to square one…again.

Several years ago, our former board chair Bill Kyles and our CEO Linda Rosenberg posed the question: What could the National Council contribute to improving this grave workforce challenge? After all, there are numerous challenges we could never address alone, and if it was so simple to “fix,” wouldn’t it be fixed already? And yet, not doing something also seemed unwise; study after study continues to indicate:

  1. The broader healthcare system struggles — severely — with retaining a diverse leadership, and
  2. Quality of care is negatively impacted.

So, by asking ourselves a slew of tough questions and relying on what the National Council has a proven track-record for — practice improvement initiatives that provide concrete skills to address the tangible challenges our members are facing today while preparing them for the future — we conceptualized what is now the Addressing Health Disparities Leadership Program. Now in its fourth year, this program identifies up-and-coming community behavioral health leaders from diverse backgrounds and provides them with the knowledge and skills to excel in a rapidly changing healthcare market.

And while this program doesn’t solve every problem contributing to a lack of diversity across all levels of the healthcare workforce, running this program provides me with confidence that a difference is being made. Simply being in a room with participants and hearing their passion and aspirations for themselves and each other is electrifying. Participants work to implement a “stretch project” during the program, a concentrated effort to tap faculty and peer expertise to improve a health disparity that exists within their organization. And, we have achieved some big wins over the years: re-organizing departmental resources to support hiring of Spanish-language interpreters in a densely-populated Latino community; reducing access barriers for a specialized refugee program embedded within a community behavioral health organization; and launching undergraduate internship programs to expose students of diverse backgrounds to community behavioral health’s incredible work. The list goes on and on.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching alum get professional recognition through commendations, promotions, and invitations to statewide committees. The National Council has benefited from this program in unanticipated ways. We have hired three alumni to serve in various positions within our own organization. In so doing, they influence the National Council’s policy and practice agendas in meaningful ways.

I’m so very proud of the 54 graduates of the Addressing Health Disparities Leadership Program, and even more proud to say that the National Council and its Board of Directors continues to set aside operating dollars to support this program. Whether you are a senior leader in community behavioral health looking to support an emerging leader or an up-and-coming professional seeking a growth opportunity, I encourage you to recommend a colleague or apply yourself. The deadline for applications is August 20, 2014.

I would also love to know what your organization does to encourage a diverse workforce in your organization and community. Share below!

Click here to read the Statement of Commitment to Racial/Ethnic Diversity of National Council’s Board