Renita Robinson began the new year with a new job — vice president of diversity and inclusion at Prevea Health — after leading the YWCA Greater Green Bay for several years. In her new role, she’s focused on mining data to identify disparities in the health care system and developing solutions to eliminate them.
Before leading the YWCA, Robinson was a licensed social worker and educator. She talked with Insight about how COVID-19’s disparate impact on people of color has created a catalyst for discussions and policy changes.
Diversity and inclusion are hot issues right now.
Renita Robinson: It’s so important to everything. It’s all connected. Doing diversity and inclusion work will make our community stronger. It will make my life better. It will make the lives of the people that I love and care about better. I think that we’re at a time in America’s history where we are listening and thinking differently about diversity and inclusion than we ever have. I’m 54 years old, and I can’t remember a time where more people were in conversations like this than they are now. I just think that timing is everything. And we are really, as a country, recognizing that we can do better.
If you look at the census data, it says basically in less than 20 years, we’re going to be a majority-minority country. In the Green Bay Area Public School District, this is already true. The minority is the majority now. That changes things, and I think a lot of times, people are afraid of that kind of change. And so, it’s great for me to be in this role because I get to be a part of the education around it to demystify the part of people don’t behave really well when they’re afraid, right? So (it’s) just being able to educate people, give people good information so that they make better choices. It’s really just exciting.
What role does diversity and inclusion play in health care?
It’s exciting for us to be talking about diversity and inclusion in the health care system because you talk about health disparities, and then you get to broaden the conversation and look at social determinants of health. So, all of the good stuff, all of the kinds of things that if you’re not paying attention, you might miss. We get to basically focus on those things and mine the data and give information statistics and word pictures so that people can see why things that maybe they hadn’t thought about before are as they are.
Then, you give people an opportunity and permission to do something about the new information, so that’s really exciting. Think about the experiences people are having. When you go to a health care provider, you go because you want to be better, usually. You may not be well and you’re trying to get better or be well. And so Prevea has really made a decision that it wants to focus on some of the things that make the experiences different for marginalized people, low-resource people. It’s just a great time to be in the conversation, and I’m really excited to be in the role to be just attending to it.
How do you make those experiences different?
You need to build trust. If you historically look at the relationship between people of color and government and institutions of medicine, times when different people were not told the truth about studies that they were involved in, such as the Tuskegee study, you have just a lot of history where different groups were not told the truth. They were engaged in studies that really caused harm to them, and that lives on. There is work to do to regain the trust of certain groups. It is clear that something has to be done so that there’s more equality and that we can calibrate things so that all citizens actually have an opportunity to be well. It’s just a lot of work in front of us, to be honest with you.
You talked about trust. Vaccines are now available — do you need to overcome barriers to make sure everyone is vaccinated?
This is an area Prevea has focused on. For example, we didn’t have some materials in languages other than English or Spanish, so we have included additional languages at our vaccination sites and on our website — little things like that make a big difference. We were also made aware that some people had transportation issues to get to the vaccine site, so we now have a bus that goes straight to the vaccine site (at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay) so it’s easier for people to access. Dr. (Ashok) Rai (Prevea’s CEO and president) has done a fabulous job just making himself available to answer questions. We have regular town hall meetings where he has a Spanish translator and they translate. He goes to church services and is there afterward to answer questions. He went to an African American church and afterward had a town hall session and people asked fascinating questions. You could tell they have been thinking about the vaccine and evaluating its safety.
You’re dealing with big questions that don’t get solved overnight. Do you celebrate the small successes along the way?
Absolutely! It’s always important to take stock in what you’ve accomplished. And that builds the capacity, I think. I just appreciate people that have been in the work of it. You let people know that their work matters. Everybody wants to know that what they’re doing matters. When you give them information about how impactful their work is to humanity, the average person wants to be a part of that. When we say, “This is working. This is changing lives. This is making a difference. This is empowering people,” I think more people get on board moving you closer to your goal.