Minnesota’s leading healthcare execs discuss solutions for disparities

Executives from leading health organizations in the Twin Cities recently gathered to discuss the role employers can play in creating equitable solutions for the state’s Black community.

The event, titled “Reckoning for Equity, Health, and Wellness,” was held on Feb. 10 as part of the “Reckoning to Rise” digital workshop series by the Center for Economic Inclusion, a St. Paul organization dedicated to closing the racial employment, income, and wealth gaps by creating inclusive and equitable regional economies. 

Launched in Jan 2021, the series works to foster an online space for Minnesota’s employers, business owners, and community members to highlight how racism and economic exclusion has created economic disparities for Black Minnesotans compared to their White counterparts. 

These talks have reached more than 15,000 people in the last year and aim to help industry leaders reimagine what an economy that works for everyone might look like.

This year the Center aims to tackle health inequities in more of their conversations. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the underlying health disparities Black Minnesotans faced and brought these issues to the forefront of the state’s public health response.

Known for having some of the nation’s largest inequities, Minnesota also has some of the largest gaps in health between Black and White residents despite being the home to many of the nation’s leading healthcare systems. 

The discussion last Thursday covered these inequities and the ways in which Minnesota’s leading health organizations were working to spearhead changes.

Led by the Center’s founder and CEO, Tawanna A. Black, the online workshop had four executives from leading health organizations: Children’s Minnesota’s Chief Equity & Inclusion Officer James C. Burroughs II, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Gillette Children’s Specialty Care Thomas Harris, Jr., Director of Racial Health Equity Advocacy of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Vayong Moua, and Chief Executive Officer of NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center Stella Whitney-West. 

Each of these leaders shared how their organizations were working to support Black employees within their network and how they were working to expand their footprint in the community to go beyond the traditional frameworks of providing healthcare to their patients. 

Whitney-West said that her staff was reeling from the recent string of violence that has plagued their North Minneapolis community, like the fatal death of 15-year-old Deshaun Hill, Jr. on Feb. 9. Later that day, a school bus driver was injured by a gunshot to the head while driving students home. The driver is expected to recover. 

In both incidents, NorthPoint employees were witnesses to these crimes. “The same trauma that our patients experience, we are experiencing,” Whitney-West said. 

The day after the shootings, she met with her staff to discuss how they could best support one another and their patients. Whitney-West stated that she’d like to see more resources go to helping staff. “Even though we provide the support through our behavioral health staff and medical team, we’ve got to do more.”

At Gillette Children’s, staff members are able to have an open dialogue and express their frustrations in a safe setting, according to Harris. He pointed to the Nursing Salons started by Tammy Sinkfield as an example of their model of encouraging employees to address their frustrations and experiences with injustice in an open setting. 

“Those are the conservations that we have to continue to have,” he said. Harris also noted that these conversations about employee wellness and experiences with systemic racism have to go beyond their organizations. “We cannot have these conversations in a silo,” he said.


Black shared that employers who invest in the wellbeing of their Black employees are helping bring holistic change to their organizations and the communities they serve. 

“Economic stability, neighborhoods and physical environment, education, food security, community safety, and social supports, and quality health care all contribute to a person’s health and well-being, or the lack thereof,” Black said. 

“Because workers invest such a large portion of each day contributing to the well-being of their employers,” Black added, “those employers must take every action within their grasp to foster wellness and health equity in each domain for all employees by creating workplaces where all people are truly valued for who they are.” 

The conversation also explored the ways in which these leaders could push for change outside of their organizations and seek to influence public policy to ensure support from state and local leaders.

“This is sometimes not about board diversity, this is sometimes not about C-Suite diversity, this is sometimes not about supplier diversity, sometimes it’s about what are you going to do differently to push the people in St. Paul to say, ‘hey, no-knock warrants—they’re not working for people who look like me,” Burroughs said. 

“We’ve got to lean in differently. We can’t just be in the comfortable zone and just talk about it. We got to be uncomfortable and do things we wouldn’t normally do,” he said.

Moua echoed the need for civic action and shared how he’d like to see health equity become a quantifiable part of public health policy in the state. He emphasized the importance of understanding how power, resources, and privilege impact decision-making.

 “We need to prioritize civic engagement as a political determinant of health,” Moua said. “I would say the highest goal is to embed racial equity in policy-making itself.” 

Looking forward, Burroughs and Whitney-Wells shared that their respective organizations hope to focus on Black maternal health and mental health issues in the community. Children’s Minnesota is investing $20 million in mental health for young people specifically and putting in 22 in-patient beds in their hospitals. 

The Center’s Reckoning series continues with a workshop scheduled for this Thursday, Feb. 17, 11:30 am-1pm CT, with “Reckoning with Women of Color, Money, and the Workplace.”

 All the workshops are free and open to the public. Registration is required: bit.ly/r2r-feb1722.

Learn more and engage with the Center at www.centerforeconomicinclusion.org.