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Inclusivity: Why Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are Important in Health Care

Organizations around the country continue to make improvements in DEI, or Diversity Equity & Inclusion, and that includes healthcare and while great strides have been made, there's still a long way to go. Joanne Harris discusses how VCU Health is amplifying the voices of patients and team members through DEI efforts.
Inclusivity: Why Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are Important in Health Care
Joanne Harris
Joanne Harris is the Program Manager for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at VCU Health. She has served as a diversity, equity, and inclusion professional for over 20 years in both higher education and mental health. Joanne has a long history of supporting communities in creating cultural programs and initiatives aimed at educating, embracing, and celebrating diversity and inclusive excellence.

Joanne received her bachelor's degree in English and Communication Studies from Bridgewater College and master's degree in Social Sciences from Hollins University. Before working at VCU Health, Joanne served as the Director of Diversity and Inclusion and English professor at Stetson University. She also served as the Director of Corporate Compliance and Quality Improvement at Rockbridge Area Community Services in Lexington, VA for several years.

She is a published poet and is currently working on her next publication, “Black Magic Healers.”
In 2013, she and her spouse, Jessica (who also works at VCU Health), were named plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit challenging Virginia's ban on marriage for same-sex couples. Her publication entitled “Just Like Other Couples — But Without Rights” details her family's journey toward winning the right to marry in Virginia. They are the proud parents of two active children, Jabari and Jazzmyn. Joanne sites her mother as being the inspiration for her work in social justice and change, stating, “I am who I am because of her.”

Evo Terra (Host): Organizations around the country are making great strides in DEI, diversity, equity and inclusion. And that includes healthcare. Here at VCU Health, we take great pride in the work we've done thus far. But we're not stopping there. Today, my guest is Joanne Harris, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Program Manager for VCU Health, here to talk about how VCU Health is ensuring that all patients feel seen.

This is Healthy with VCU Health. I'm Evo Terra. We're gonna talk about the importance of inclusivity in healthcare, Joanne, and I want to start by asking you what may seem a very obvious question. Why is this initiative important?

Joanne Harris: Well, first, thank you for having me. And this is incredibly important. We are in this beautiful ever-changing world and all healthcare providers and organizations really have a responsibility to care for anyone who comes through their doors. VCU Health is fortunately in a very beautiful, diverse city and surrounding counties and so many different areas, race, ethnicity, spoken language, people of all walks of life, economic statuses, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, so much. And we need to make sure we're taking care of everyone. And we do that by truly embracing diversity, equity and inclusion, and we can't forget access to care.

Evo Terra (Host): Yes, it's a true melting pot today in most places and, where VCU Health is based, even more so, right? It is becoming a truly cosmopolitan area, I would say, which means we have to change, and I know change is hard, right?

Joanne Harris: Of course, change is hard. But do you know what? Change is also beautiful. It's what makes us better. It moves us forward and it helps us help one another.

Evo Terra (Host): Yes, it does. Let's talk for a minute about, maybe from my perspective, one of the more complex issues, especially when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, and that's because healthcare is often clinical. You know, it's biological. And I imagine that very cut and dry reality is a challenge to the patients who are LGBTQI or gender fluid. How do we work with that?

Joanne Harris: Absolutely. I think that the complexities around how people identify in the LGBTQ community is fortunately common for all of us. Sometimes we think we are not like someone else and it's because we get hung up on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation when quite frankly, we have much more in common than we don't. I have been with my wife for 20 years. We have two children. When I wake up in the morning to get ready to go to VCU Health to be the Program Manager for Diversity, Equity, inclusion, I'm just waking up as a mom, trying to get my kids out the door and trying to get to work to make sure that I'm laying the groundwork for our patients of all walks of life and how many people identify.

So when it comes to people who are gender fluid or who are transgender, we make sure that we get to know everything possible. We have several diversity, equity, inclusion trainings. We have a Stepping-in for respect training, where we learn about the LGBTQ community. We also even gather information when anyone walks in the door about diversity, equity, inclusion and that includes their gender identity, their sexual orientation, their preferred name, their preferred pronouns. For example, if I was a patient at VCU Health, we have an electronic system that documents my pronouns, my gender. So, my healthcare provider is going to ask me what my preferred pronouns are. They're going to ask me what my gender is. They're also going to ask me of my sex. And so, when I'm thinking about sex, I'm thinking about what is assigned to us at birth what's on our birth certificate. And at VCU Health, we need to know that, but we also need to know if people identify with that documented sex. So, we ask the question because we don't want to guess, we want to make sure that patients are not simply on the bus, and the bus being their healthcare, but rather driving the bus and they're taking it in the direction they want to go. But that means asking questions upfront to everyone.

Evo Terra (Host): I would imagine, and please correct me if I'm wrong about this, that some people may be more likely to talk about the challenges of gender fluidity and identity and all that with a healthcare provider than they are with other people. But I may be wrong about that. It may be difficult for patients to speak with their healthcare providers about that. What's been your experience?

Joanne Harris: My experience is if we're upfront and we ask the question from the beginning. But not only that, we ourselves come to the table and introduce ourselves as, "Hello. My name is Joanne Harris Duff. My pronouns are she, her and hers. It's okay to call me Joanne." And I hope that sets the stage, but also for team members, that means we need to have the training to prepare us for that moment. And that's something that we are dedicated to at VCU Health. Every team member has been given an opportunity to fulfill four hours or more of diversity, equity, inclusion training. And you can do that in so many really cool ways. We've got a great system in Workday that gives professional development opportunities to learn about a plethora of great diversity topics, whether that is race, ethnicity, gender, women, leadership for individuals who are first generation students. So, there's so many different ways.

Evo Terra (Host): And as the program manager of this DEI program, how are you tracking success? How do you know it's going in the right direction? Just smiling faces around the halls or there some more data that goes with that?

Joanne Harris: There's absolutely data. Something that I'm really proud of that we do well at VCU Health is we gather data not only quantitatively, but we do that qualitatively as well. We ask our team members to measure their sense of belonging. We make sure that in the diversity, equity, inclusion office, our doors are wide open and we're able to walk team members through any issues that folks have, any misunderstandings that people have. And again, that is rooted in what we learn, right? We are truly supporting that education is a baseline. So sure, that looks like smiling faces, but surprisingly, that also has to do with people being brave enough to ask tough questions, to make complaints, and we can help anyone maneuver through difficult dialogue.

We initially have a program that is about difficult dialogue and conversations. It's called Dire Conversations. We do that every month, me and a gentleman named Roy Rote, we come together and we host a dire dialogue series and it happens every fourth Wednesday, like clockwork, of the month. And we pick a topic, we ask our team members for topics. For example, next Wednesday, we're going to be talking about women in leadership. So not only are we celebrating Women's History Month, but we're going to be talking about leadership in healthcare for women.

Evo Terra (Host): Joanne, can you tell me something about the specific programs you are offering VCU Health members throughout the year?

Joanne Harris: Absolutely. For example, in January, we started off 2022 with celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King. We had a guest speaker, and it was the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Marcelle Davis, Dr. Davis. She was our keynote speaker and she really talked about how we can change our world to be better. But do you know what's really cool that we did before that? We had three students from a local middle school who read that I Have a Dream speech. It was awesome. Those kids, they read it like pros. They practiced and they were careful and it's because it was important to them. I highlighted during that MLK Program that those three middle school students are laying the groundwork for us to be better. There are two of them who want to be healthcare providers.

Evo Terra (Host): That's great.

Joanne Harris: Yes.

Evo Terra (Host): Yes, that's an amazing win. Well, Joanne, it sounds like you're making some amazing progress. VCU Health is on the forefront of what's happening in the world with healthcare, including diversity, equity and inclusion. And I want to thank you very much for being my guest today on the show.

Joanne Harris: Thank you so much for having me. It's wonderful to talk about VCU Health, because we are a community who loves people and cares for people extremely well. So, thank you.

Evo Terra (Host): You're welcome. If you have a question about the DEI efforts at VCU Health, please contact us at Again, that's And to listen to the other podcasts from VCU Health, please visit This is Healthy with VCU Health. I'm Evo Terra. Thanks for joining me.