Office of Health, Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Opens at Kennedy Krieger

The office is preceded by yearslong efforts encouraging equity, inclusion and diversity at the Institute and in the community.

September 23, 2020

Kennedy Krieger Institute's new Office of Health, Equity, Inclusion and Diversity (O-HEID), established last month, represents a significant step in the Institute's journey to cultivate and encourage a community of equity, inclusion and diversity.

A quarter of a century ago, the Institute's Center for Child and Family Traumatic Stress (CCFTS) formed a Cultural Awareness Committee to encourage cultural and linguistic competency across the Institute. Then about four years ago, Kennedy Krieger's Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Workgroup began meeting to address disparities across the Kennedy Krieger community. Two years later, the Cultural Awareness Committee shifted its focus toward anti-racism and joined a national anti-racism initiative through the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. And early last year, the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Workgroup became a formal steering committee.

"For many years, Kennedy Krieger has held and engaged in multiple independent equity, inclusion and diversity activities, including the Center for Diversity in Public Health Leadership Training's work, the annual Room to Grow: Journey to Cultural and Linguistic Competency Conference, advocacy through the Maryland Center for Developmental Disabilities, and the establishment of the steering committee," says Jacqueline Stone, PhD, MPA, PT, Kennedy Krieger's chief clinical officer and a member of the steering committee.

Recent killings of Black individuals by police officers, and the protests that have erupted around the country demanding justice for those killed, "have only heightened the urgency of this work," Dr. Stone says.

The O-HEID will promote the health, well-being and cultural competency of all members of the Kennedy Krieger community through evidence- and equity-based approaches that support diversity and inclusion. Services will include research, education, support, advocacy and clinical work. The Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee will support the O-HEID in an advisory role.

"All of the work that we'll do in this space will influence and involve Kennedy Krieger's overall culture, including its board of directors, faculty and staff members, trainees, patients, students, and families, as well as Baltimore, Maryland and the nation," Dr. Stone says.

Directing the new office will be Harolyn M. E. Belcher, MD, MHS. A former trainee of the Institute, Dr. Belcher has been the director of the Institute's Center for Diversity in Public Health Leadership Training for the past 15 years and associate director of Kennedy Krieger's Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) program for the past five years. From 2003 to 2015, she served as director of research at the CCFTS. A member of the steering committee, Dr. Belcher was recently named the Institute's inaugural chief diversity officer and a vice president of Kennedy Krieger.

"As an institution founded on the premise of treatment, education, research and advocacy for children and youth with-or at risk for-developmental disabilities, Kennedy Krieger has been on a journey to address the needs of children, youth and families who are often marginalized," Dr. Belcher says.

"The O-HEID, with Dr. Belcher's direction, will galvanize and lead our advancement in health, equity, inclusion and diversity," adds Bradley L. Schlaggar, MD, PhD, president and CEO of Kennedy Krieger, and a member of the steering committee. "And we-everyone at the Institute-will do this work together. Our work will touch all areas of our influence, both inside the Institute and in all the communities we serve."

"Together, we will examine our policies and services to ensure the Institute leads in equitable and anti-racist practices. We will work collaboratively across healthcare, education, advocacy and other sectors to determine what needs to be done, promote solutions and leverage the skills and talents of Kennedy Krieger clinicians, researchers, trainees and staff members to benefit both Kennedy Krieger and the larger community," Dr. Belcher says.

"There's a lot of energy in this space at Kennedy Krieger," she adds. "Our work with children who have-or are at risk of having-developmental disabilities requires us to be compassionate, patient, culturally competent and innovative. That makes us a unique institution with unique skills and abilities that we can use to move into a leadership role in this field."

A Longstanding History

Kennedy Krieger has been supporting emerging scholars from a diversity of backgrounds for a number of years, and Dr. Belcher has played an important role in this. While with the CCFTS, Dr. Belcher directed the Institute's Research Initiatives for Student Enhancement (RISE) program, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Office of Minority Health and Health Equity. Through that program, more than 60 graduate scholars, most of them graduates of historically Black colleges and universities, received research training at Kennedy Krieger in the mental health and maternal and child health fields.

Dr. Belcher also supported more than 500 diverse scholars through the federally funded Maternal Child Health Careers/Research Initiatives for Student Enhancement - Undergraduate Program (MCHC/RISE-UP); Maternal Child Health-Leadership Education, Advocacy, and Research Network (MCH-LEARN); Public Health Leadership and Learning Undergraduate Student Success (PLLUSS) Program; and Dr. James A. Ferguson Emerging Infectious Diseases-RISE Fellowship Program.

In 2010, the Institute was selected to lead the Maryland Learning Collaborative in Diversity in Maternal and Child Health Training under the co-leadership of Dr. Belcher and Dr. Yvonne Bronner, a professor at Morgan State University. During that time, Dr. Belcher partnered with Tawara Goode, director of Georgetown University's National Center for Cultural Competence, to create the Room to Grow: Journey to Cultural and Linguistic Competency Conference, which is now in its 10th year.

Kennedy Krieger's work in providing care to and supporting individuals with disabilities-who, collectively, make up the largest marginalized group in the nation-also puts the Institute in a distinctive position.

"Because we work with communities that are underresourced and marginalized, we have a longstanding history in the field of equity, inclusion and diversity," says Elizabeth A. Thompson, PhD, vice president of Kennedy Krieger's Department of Family and Community Interventions, director of the Center for Child and Family Traumatic Stress, designer of the center's anti-racism initiative, and a member of the steering committee.

And Kennedy Krieger is ahead of the curve in hiring individuals with disabilities. The Maryland Center for Developmental Disabilities (MCDD) at Kennedy Krieger, one of a national network of University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, leads the way, with several individuals with disabilities and/or neurodiverse traits among its staff members.

"Several of our staff members have one or more disabilities-including cerebral palsy, epilepsy and low vision-and some of our staff members use augmentative or alternative communication methods," explains Maureen van Stone, Esq., MS, the MCDD's director and a member of the steering committee. In addition to its advocacy work on behalf of individuals with disabilities, the "MCDD shows how the Institute can support individuals with disabilities in having meaningful employment, and how the Institute can adapt to the needs of its staff members."

The diversity among Kennedy Krieger's staff members, patients and students gives the Institute a solid stepping stone for becoming a leader in the field of equity, inclusion and diversity.

"We have so much diversity among our faculty and staff members, trainees, patients, and students, in terms of race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and so on," van Stone says, "but we've never really looked at what that means to our organization, and how we can meet the diverse needs of our staff members, patients and students."

This presents an opportunity for enhancing equitable practice, Dr. Stone explains. "That could be how we create policies, guidance and processes that affect individual staff members and trainees, as well as our patients and students, and their families. We need to ensure that everyone can participate and be involved, and that we understand the barriers to, and social determinants of, health that impact families. And finally, as we work to increase the diversity of our workforce, we also want to be sure we have a welcoming environment to retain what we achieve."

The O-HEID's role will be to look at all of this from an organizational perspective, Dr. Stone says, to ensure that Kennedy Krieger is encouraging, welcoming and making room for diversity across the Institute and beyond.

What Else You Can Do

While the O-HEID will tackle issues of equity, inclusion and diversity across the Institute and community, particularly with respect to healthcare, it's important that individual members of the Kennedy Krieger community-especially those who are not part of underrepresented or marginalized populations-commit to learning more about-and working toward-cultural and linguistic competency, anti-racism, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

"What employees can do that is critically important is to educate themselves and help educate their colleagues. At Kennedy Krieger, we value equity, inclusion and diversity. We are absolutely anti-racist. What does that mean? Find out. Learn about the history of African Americans, the Latino population, American Indians, individuals with disabilities, and other groups," Dr. Stone suggests.

"Self and peer education through reading, viewing videos and movies, engaging in conversations with peers and persons from different cultures and backgrounds, participating in training programs serving trainees from underrepresented groups, and involvement in equity, inclusion and diversity activities at the Institute" can go a long way toward becoming a better ally of co-workers and peers of a marginalized group, she adds.

For example, the MCDD's leadership team does a staff-led cultural and linguistic competency exercise at each of its monthly meetings. "I think this leads not only to competence in these areas, but also to more team bonding," van Stone says.

And as we learn, it's important to ensure that what we learn positively impacts our actions and behaviors, and how we interact with our co-workers, and with patients and students, and their families. In that sense, Dr. Stone says, embracing equity, inclusion and diversity is a journey, not an initiative.

But at the same time, embracing equity, inclusion and diversity is more than just self-education. "It's not just about awareness-raising; it's not just about changing hearts and minds and individuals, but looking at the systemic and structural issues that need to change," Dr. Thompson says. "Awareness doesn't necessarily lead to change. If you focus only on individuals, you're missing the systemic and structural pieces, and that's where the change needs to happen."

"It's hard work, and sometimes uncomfortable, but if we stay in the safe spaces, we won't get the work done," Dr. Belcher explains. "We have to move to brave spaces, together."

O-HEID's Vision, Mission and Values

The vision of the O-HEID is to promote the health and well-being of all those who work or receive training or services at Kennedy Krieger, using evidence- and equity-based, culturally relevant approaches that assure diversity and inclusion.

The mission of the O-HEID is to provide and create evidence- and equity-based resources for those who work, train and receive services at Kennedy Krieger. The resources and services of the O-HEID will improve health and well-being by supporting, valuing and prioritizing diversity and inclusion. The O-HEID will use evidence-informed equity and anti-racism strategies to improve opportunities for mentorship, education, health disparities research, and the career advancement and retention of those who work at Kennedy Krieger. The office will collaborate with The Johns Hopkins University, as well as with city, state and national organizations, to reduce disparities and promote diversity, inclusion and leadership in the maternal and child health, mental health, and developmental disabilities fields.

The values of the O-HEID are to:

  1. Be inclusive.
  2. Use creative and evidence-informed problem-solving strategies.
  3. Identify and address -isms.
  4. Strive for excellence in mission each day.
  5. Open communication.
  6. Listen actively.
  7. Learn from and respect each other.
  8. Be flexible.
  9. Embrace change.
  10. Work with integrity and ethics.
  11. Be accountable and data-driven.