Despite backlash, DEI leaders say Catholic health systems remain committed

April 2024



Leaders of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives across the Catholic health care ministry say a conservative backlash against such efforts isn't shaking their systems' resolve.


"I am proud that, in the face of external pressure, in the face of DEI being hijacked and sort of redefined as something negative and harmful, we have not been moved," says LaRonda Chastang, senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Trinity Health.

At Bon Secours Mercy Health, Odesa Stapleton, chief diversity and inclusion officer, says the system is unwavering in its "culture of inclusion" that, as at other systems, extends into training and education, recruitment and retention, equity in care, community partnerships and supplier diversity.


Marcos Pesquera, system vice president for community health and chief diversity officer, says of CHRISTUS Health's DEI commitment, "We have remained steadfast."

Their comments come amid a wave of blows against diversity efforts on the grounds that the initiatives give unfair advantages to some groups.

In several states, including Texas, where CHRISTUS is based, lawmakers have passed measures to halt DEI initiatives at universities. Those measures follow a Supreme Court decision last summer that struck down affirmative action in college admissions. Meanwhile, a conservative nonprofit called The American Alliance for Equal Rights has sued various private and public organizations over race-based programs, such as internships offered exclusively to minority groups.



Doubling down
Chastang says the backlash might in some conversations prompt her to change her language when she discusses Trinity Health's push for diversity, equity and inclusion. Sometimes, she will instead reference terms from Catholic social teaching such as justice and solidarity to explain that the system's DEI efforts are extensions of its mission to respect and provide quality care to everyone, especially the poor and vulnerable.

"If those three letters — 'D' period, 'E' period, 'I' period — are causing people to trip up and I need to talk about it differently, I'll update my language so that I can bring people along," she says.

Whatever the terminology, Chastang says Trinity Health has put DEI in motion systemwide. It produces an annual DEI report that spotlights its efforts and shares the related successes. The report for fiscal year 2023, for example, points out that of the Livonia, Michigan-based system's workforce of about 150,000 across 27 states, 30,000 employees this year voluntarily acknowledged the system's DEI commitment statement. The statement includes: "DEI is a central part of living our mission, core values and achieving our vision."

Meanwhile, the system's Colleague Resource Groups, set up to foster an inclusive and welcoming environment for staff members by helping them network with others with common interests or experience, have grown from a few to more than 10 groups and membership spiked 66% last year. The separate groups include those for women, African Americans, veterans and LGBTQ+.

Chastang says while other organizations might be pulling back, Trinity Health has "consistently doubled down on our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. It's not a program, it's not an activity. It is our identity. It is how we want to and choose to show up in the world."

Setting goals
Stapleton says DEI was a priority for Bon Secours Mercy Health well before tragic events such as the deaths at the hands of police of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, made diversity initiatives trendy.

In the last few years, however, Stapleton says the Cincinnati-based system has been intentional about setting goals for its efforts and tracking progress.

In 2019 Bon Secours Mercy Health committed, within five years, to contract at least $50 million — a year-over-year 5% increase in its diverse business spend — in its supplies or services from minority businesses. It reached that goal in less than four years. "We've exceeded that $50 million just by being more inclusive in the bidding process, and we're trying to do even more," Stapleton says.

The system recently signed an "impact workforce commitment" as part of its participation in the Healthcare Anchor Network. The system pledged over the next five years to hire 10% of its associates from ZIP codes with high percentages of marginalized people within communities in its seven-state footprint.

Hiring, growing diverse leaders
Stapleton says Bon Secours Mercy Health encourages leaders to recruit and interview qualified job candidates from minority groups that reflect the communities served. The percentage of people from such groups hired for positions at director level or above across the system hit 19% in 2020 and 21% last year.

The system also is working to develop leaders from within, including efforts to ensure that women and people of color who are on executive tracks have mentors.

The system's goal, Stapleton says, is for its leadership to reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the communities it serves. "We're not lowering the qualifications," she notes. "They have to be equally or better qualified than any other candidate for executive talent acquisition to include them on the slate."

Stapleton says she sees DEI initiatives as a manifestation of Bon Secours Mercy Health's commitment to honoring and elevating the human dignity of all people, but also as vital to its survival. "If we don't have providers of multiple ethnicities, multiple generations, different races, different backgrounds, are people going to want to come to us for care?" she asks.

Mirroring the community
Pesquera says CHRISTUS Health is steeped in a commitment to diversity that is reflected in the makeup of its board of directors. The board is almost equally split by gender and one-third of its 15 members are people of color. The current chair, Maricela Breedlove, is Hispanic.

"Our goal is not to see how everyone else is doing and then we perform accordingly," Pesquera says. "Our goal is to look at our patient population and our communities and the diversity that exists within the folks that we're able to serve. And that's how we want to mirror and that's how we want to look."

Part of Pesquera's job is to monitor CHRISTUS' metrics around diversity at its hospitals, which are in Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Chile, Mexico and Colombia, and report on the system's progress to the board every six months. A goal that the system set in 2020 is to increase what was then 24% representation of minority groups in executive levels to 32% by 2025. Pesquera says the system is already near 30% as it replaces people moving or retiring from those jobs through promotions and new hires.

To help develop a diverse pool of candidates for its top posts, CHRISTUS has a sponsorship program for minority associates who show promise as future leaders. Those associates are paired with executives who can give them high-visibility projects, invite them to showcase their knowledge at board meetings and otherwise open doors that can put them on a path to C-suite offices.

"Basically, the goal is to bring high-performing associates to rooms they normally do not have access to," Pesquera says.

As intentional as CHRISTUS is in its efforts to diversify its executive ranks, Pesquera says in the end hiring decisions are based on whoever is the best fit.

"We're going to hire always the best person for the job that has the right qualifications, but we are going to look and make sure that we have reached out to organizations and individuals that are diverse, that are minorities, and consider them in the process," he says.

Health Progress, CHA's journal, has created a DEI discussion guide. Learn more here:


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