After racist photos of Hennepin Healthcare White employees in blackface recently surfaced and became public, officials at the Twin Cities’ largest safety-net hospital system say they have completed their investigation and taken corrective action.
Two photos showing three White women in blackface makeup dressed as singers and a second photo showing two people in dreadlock-style wigs and dark makeup—both taken at a Hennepin event—were sent via email to Hennepin Health leadership in February.
After the photos were made public, hospital management was questioned about its commitment to changing the culture of the hospital system. The union that represents Hennepin Healthcare EMS also called the hospital to take action, and a group of doctors issued a letter asking leadership to make good on its anti-racist commitments.
Chief Executive Officer Jennifer DeCubellis last week told the MSR that due to privacy laws, she cannot publicly disclose their identities, but at least three individuals have been disciplined. “We have taken action related to the blackface photos, in particular,” she announced. “We’ve taken personnel action up to and including termination.”
“There’s been a lot of pushback of ‘Did we move fast enough’…,” continued DeCubellis. “We followed our policies and practices, our state laws, and our union contracts.”
Asked if the email was sent by a current Hennepin employee or a disgruntled ex, the CEO replied, “It doesn’t matter how it comes in. We take that very seriously.”
The ‘excited delirium’ flap
The photos came on the heels of a published report in February that a Hennepin Healthcare doctor was still training Minneapolis police on “excited delirium,” a controversial diagnosis of a severe form of agitation that a national physicians’ association has condemned as racist.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said he told his staff to cease such training in 2021 because it is often misused by police against Black men.
The MSR obtained a copy of a Feb. 14 letter from DeCubellis, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Daniel Hoody, and Chief Health Equity Officer Dr. Nneka Sederstrom in which they apologized to the community for the MPD training. The letter introduced next steps, including a revised training, an immediate review to either amend or terminate the medical directorship contract with MPD, and ramping up its internal education on systemic racism at Hennepin.
“It’s easy to point fingers,” noted DeCubellis. “Our commitment is to figure this out, get it right, get it right with and for our community and the patients we serve and the team members who serve them.”
Hennepin Healthcare, which includes Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) in downtown Minneapolis, largely serves Blacks and other People of Color. The hospital’s 2020-22 Community Health Needs Survey states that 34% of its patients are Black, 19% Latino, 4% Asian, 3% Native American or Alaskan Native, and 38% White.
Making good on anti-racism pledge
After the death of George Floyd in 2020, Hennepin Healthcare pledged a commitment to anti-racism: “Our board back in 2020 did declare racism as a public health emergency,” recalled DeCubellis. “Dr. Sederstrom was hired in January of 2021, reporting directly to me. One of the first things we did was create a health equity team, and in that first year, we charged them with putting together a plan of how do we really eliminate racism in health care on an ongoing basis.
“[Team members] have launched an incredible amount of work in the first year, but we know we have a long way to go,” stated DeCubellis. “We can’t just focus on patient care when we have racism within our walls. We need to call it out; we need to address it and we need to go even deeper based on what we’ve seen.”
Sederstrom last week told the MSR that her team’s plan includes the Health Equity Ambassador training program, which eight individuals have completed. “They’re mostly People of Color from various parts of our institution. I think we [also] have one White ally,” she reported, adding the importance of being “accountable to and transparent to not only our community but to our team members as well, because they are counting on us to be better, and we have been more intentional in the last few weeks.”
DeCubellis reiterated, “We need to be intentional. We can’t just say it; it can’t be a hashtag. It can’t be a soft initiative. We truly need to invest in realizing that anti-racism and changing our culture both from patients and community we serve to the people who serve them.”
“I was talking with a friend who said, ‘You have to remember that cultural change takes something like 10 to 15 years,” said Sederstrom. “I don’t have that kind of time. So, we’re gonna have to hit this and hit as hard as we can and get it done now. I think that the plan that we have in place will do that.”
The blackface photos issue reaffirmed that their anti-racism work is very important and sorely needed, said the two Hennepin Healthcare officials. “What the recent events have taught us is we can’t be there for our community until we’ve done the work inside our walls that we need to do,” stated DeCubellis. “This is not just another health care organization, but [Hennepin Healthcare] is also representative of our community.”
“We need [the greater community] to keep us accountable and to keep us on the right path,” concluded Sederstrom.
Updated 3/17/2022: Story was corrected to note that the event where Hennepin Health employees wore blackface was not an EMS event.
I left my position as a nurse manager in February of 2021. My choice to leave was not based on a feeling that there was racial discrimination against me personally. There were several employees that I talked with before leaving that felt that I was being pushed out because of my being a black woman. I brought these concerns to my direct leader before leaving the organization. I was very concerned that the sentiment that I was being discriminated against was a common belief of employees. I left the organization because it was the best thing for me to do personally. Before leaving I wanted to ensure that there was a voice put to leadership of the feeling that racism was a real time concern of those employees that remain.