Inclusion to Innovation Summit focuses on forging new path

November 16, 2020
a screenshot from the teleconference shows John Register in front of his computer
John Register, a Paralympic silver medalist, spoke at the summit about getting beyond external and internal biases.

The year 2020 has been marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, the massive outcry after the deaths of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police and a drawn-out election. It all left people to wonder what the future holds. 

Speakers at MUSC’s fourth annual Inclusion to Innovation Summit offered motivation and hope to the assembled virtual audience and said that, if we act with courage, we can come through this time of crisis to reshape our nation into a more just and equitable land.

The summit is held every year as a place where people working to improve the diversity and inclusion of their institutions can gather to discuss shared goals and challenges. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the summit into a virtual format, but planning committee co-chair Willette Burnham-Williams, Ph.D., chief equity officer for MUSC, said the events of the year made the summit more important than ever.

Anton Gunn, chief diversity officer for MUSC Charleston and executive director of community health innovation, opened the summit by noting the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on minority communities, which have been disproportionately represented among cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

“This pandemic was showing us how race, equity and the lack of inclusion in our society was showing up in health care. Now, we knew this all along. We have years of history to know disparities are real, that inequities are real in health care, but they got put on ‘front street,’ if you will, in front of the entire country in the middle of this pandemic. It was really hard to watch for a lot of people. It was hard to watch for many people at MUSC who live and breathe the kind of opportunity to make health care equitable and affordable and accessible for every person we have the privilege to serve,” Gunn said.

Speaker John Register urged attendees to not allow things to go back to the old normal. “The ‘new normal’ is not a destination at all. The new normal is only a plateau by which we can grow,” he said.

Register spoke from personal experience. He was an Olympic hopeful when a horrific injury forced the amputation of his leg. He eventually went on to become a silver medalist in the Paralympics, but it took years for him to get to a place where he was ready to run and compete again. Even after he made the Paralympic team, he still viewed himself and his teammates as “less than” the able-bodied Olympians.

Eventually, talking to a friend, he came to a realization. It wasn’t about “overcoming” his injury, but seeing the humanity in everyone, himself and his teammates included. “I said, you know, had I overcome the amputation of my left leg, I’d have my leg back.

“The thing I thought I was rebuilding I really wasn’t rebuilding. We don’t rebuild. We think we’re rebuilding. But that stage is gone. How do you rebuild post-COVID? We've had too much water under the bridge. We’re not going back to that place.”

But redefining ourselves takes courage, he said. “When we have the courage, we will make a decision of faith. If we don’t, we go back to the fears we have.”

a screenshot from a teleconference shows Rev. Tutu in front of  her computer 
Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu spoke about reconciling our past in order to create a future.

Speaker Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu, associate rector at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, California, and daughter of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also spoke of the past and the future, beginning with her experience in South Africa. She said that once Nelson Mandela became president, “we glowed in the reflected glory of a President Mandela.”

But, she said, Mandela noted that South Africans couldn’t pick and choose their history. “As South Africans, we cannot claim to be the country of Nelson Mandela unless we also claim to be the country of Eugene de Kock.” De Kock was a death squad leader who tortured and killed anti-apartheid activists.

“Both of those are part of our story as South Africans, and both of those stories are part of the story that took us to 1994, to our democratic elections. So, for me, that is such a central part in talking about healing and inclusion and diversity. It is not so much about reconciling with one another, though that can be an aim and a goal, partly it is about reconciling with who we are, reconciling with our history, reconciling with what has brought us to the place that we are today,” Tutu said.

She also noted that forgiveness is not a unilateral act but is relational.

“Forgiveness comes when somebody asks for forgiveness. Then we are injuncted by Christ to offer forgiveness. But this willy-nilly thing we do, particularly to people of color in this country when they have gone through a traumatic experience, to say, ‘Are you ready to forgive the person who killed your son?’ — ‘Have you asked the person who killed my son if he or she is ready to come and ask for my forgiveness?’” she said.

a screenshot from the conference shows Dr. DeGruy in front of her computer  
Dr. Joy DeGruy talked about finding the safe spaces within an institution.

To close the event, speaker Joy DeGruy, Ph.D., talked about developing an organizational “green book.” The best known green book was a guide for Black travelers of safe spots to eat, fill up the tank and sleep. DeGruy said an institutional green book lets employees or students know the safe spaces in the organization.

“Where can I go and vent, and not get in trouble? Where can I go and get support and assistance and tutoring, without humiliation?” she said.

“You don’t have to be Black to be in the green book, by the way,” she said. Further, she added, “You can’t lobby your way into the green book.”

But the green book creates a sort of professional peer pressure that says, “Why aren’t you in the green book? Why is it the people here didn’t see you as safe?”

Burnham-Williams, who heads a newly established office to oversee equity efforts across the MUSC enterprise, said her team is working to create safe spaces.

“In the midst of your loved ones and the communities that you have around you in your personal day-to-day, protected space, we are creating that same kind of space for you every day at the Medical University of South Carolina. We know there’s still many, many imperfect places,” she said.

“But what I will promise you,” Burnham-Williams continued, “What Anton promises you, what our teams promise you, is that we work diligently every day to identity those places, to work with other leaders across our campus to stop the disparity, to stop the disrespect, and to stay committed to the values we espouse and that we live by every single day.”