Army Public Health Center Diversity Equity and Inclusion Council reflects on first year
Members of APHC’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility committee hold a virtual meeting to discuss ways to make the APHC workplace fair and equitable for all employees. The council recently welcomed new members to assist with planned DEIA efforts, including discussion topics like pronouns and gendered language, racial extremism in the military, ableism, and ageism. (U.S. Army photo illustration by Graham Snodgrass) (Photo Credit: Graham Snodgrass) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and continued incidences of racial injustice created two overlapping crises impacting the health and well-being of the Army Public Health Center workforce, Army Soldiers, and the Total Army Family. Recognizing a critical need to support the workforce in dealing with issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, both at work and in their everyday lives, APHC leadership and staff decided to engage in an internal commitment to improve DEI within the organization and to address health disparities through public health mission work.

An initial DEI Steering Committee began the groundwork and was later expanded to a 12-member Advisory Council of individuals demonstrating passion for DEI initiatives.

“Selected members all possessed the qualities of being committed to creating a workplace environment that is fair and equitable for all,” said Chanel Weaver, APHC public affairs officer and DEI Advisory Council member.

It’s been a little more than a year since APHC’s DEI Advisory Council began engaging APHC staff in conversations centered on DEI topics and the Council is now taking time to reflect on their inaugural year.

“The facilitated discussions offered by the DEI Advisory Council have an ultimate goal of creating a ‘safe space’ for employees to start a conversation regarding diversity, equity and inclusion topics,” said Latoya Johnson, chair of APHC’s DEI Council. “Our first year of engagements focused largely on racism, based on events following the murder of George Floyd, and the relevance of racism to the U.S. population as a whole. But ultimately, we are focused on providing information, context, and relevant discussion on various DEI topics.”

In addition to discussions pertaining to race, the DEI Council facilitated staff engagements highlighting other DEI-related issues such as gender inequality, hidden meanings behind common words and expressions (i.e., word origins), and the concept of privilege. The Council also surveyed the workforce to obtain staff perspectives and experiences related to discrimination (e.g., racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, etc.), both past and present, in the workplace and surrounding community. Survey results were presented during a DEI engagement and showed, among other things, APHC employees rarely engage in conversations about race and other DEI issues with colleagues or leaders due to concerns of offending others. However, staff believe APHC has a responsibility to address DEI issues in the workplace.

Critics of recent Department of Defense DEI initiatives argue this type of approach is divisive and insist the DOD and the Services deserve more credit for leading the way in encouraging diversity and inclusion. While recognizing past actions the Army has taken toward improving diversity and inclusion, the APHC DEI Council offers contemporary context to shed light on significant challenges that remain as well as opportunities to combat ongoing discrimination.

“In theory, the Army is an organization that promotes fairness and equity for all employees,” said Johnson. “However, numerous studies and surveys have shown that many individuals in the Army’s civilian and military community have experienced or witnessed discrimination in the workplace.”

Johnson cites the 2017 Office of People Analytics survey, which showed that about one in five active-duty members indicated experiencing racial/ethnic harassment and/or discrimination in the 12 months prior to taking the survey.

“Our facilitated discussions are opportunities for staff to listen, learn, and share their lived experiences,” said Johnson. “Most importantly, the conversations are always intended to promote respect and dignity.”

To address the inequity and discrimination concerns raised from across the federal workforce and engagements, President Joe Biden issued Executive Order 14035, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce. This EO strives to maintain a federal workforce where all employees are treated with dignity and respect, to remove barriers to equal opportunity, and to bolster the capacity to fairly and equitably recruit, hire, develop, promote and retain talent.

As part of their work, the DEI Council researches and provides historical facts to allow for more context and diverse perspectives.

“Historical context is important and allows colleagues to better understand and appreciate the diversity of perspectives and lived experiences amongst each other,” said Dr. Matthew Beymer, an epidemiologist and DEI Council member.

Council members stress the importance of differentiating their sessions from trainings. Instead, the Council views their events as optional engagements for staff to attend and participate in a robust dialogue, followed by small-group discussions for continued conversation in a more intimate setting. The aim of these engagements is to increase awareness and knowledge about the importance of identifying and actively incorporating DEI-informed practices in the workplace.

“Caring about others and acknowledging that what we say can have a negative impact on someone’s morale, self-esteem and mission readiness should be championed in an Army setting where building cohesive teams is one of the benchmarks for mission success,” said Lisa Polyak, an environmental engineer and Council member.

With respect to their first year, council members are proud of their accomplishments in such a short period of time and have received positive feedback from the workforce.

“Many employees have told me firsthand that they have enjoyed the facilitated discussions because it opened their eyes to injustice, even in the Army workplace, and have allowed them to speak up and combat it when they see it,” said Weaver.

Council member Pat Rippey, an APHC environmental scientist, agrees.

“I am constantly in awe of people who are able to relate personal stories and give their perspectives on difficult topics,” said Rippey. “I think I’ve been most impressed with the patience, grace, and forgiveness people of color have shown, particularly the DEI Advisory Council members, when faced with participants’ comments that could be hurtful to them or others.”

In addition to engagements involving large groups of APHC employees, Council members also facilitated small group discussions, which many found to be the most rewarding for members and participants.

“As a Council member, I found that my implicit biases, prejudices and misconceptions were regularly challenged and brought to the surface,” said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Bass, division chief for APHC’s Behavioral and Social Health Outcomes Practice. “I experienced varying levels of shame, guilt, and self-consciousness after speaking freely about certain DEI topics including, but not limited to, discussions about Black Lives Matter, kneeling during the national anthem, the January 6 riot/insurrection events, and hidden language and coded messages such as ‘ghetto’. However, with the help of my Advisory Council peers during weekly syncs and the help of our APHC colleagues during large and small DEI engagements, I was able to enhance my understanding and empathy for other peoples’ perspectives of related topics.”

Dr. Deanna Harkins, a physician with the Clinical Public Health and Epidemiology directorate, said she saw the benefits of the engagements as hearing diverse perspectives in a respectful forum, and the potential for bridge-building, which are opportunities one might not otherwise have in the workplace.

“What I find most memorable is that the discussions have allowed employees who have worked together for years to know and understand each other on a more personal and deeper level,” said Weaver. “True friendships and connections have been made between employees that will extend beyond their time at APHC.”

Beymer offered similar sentiments and highlighted that DEI engagements help break down what can otherwise be a more formal work environment.

“The DEI engagements have been the only time that I have seen many individuals open up and share their truth about their experiences at work and in society, and their raw reflections have allowed me to understand their lives in a way that makes me want to do better each day,” said Beymer. “The lessons I have learned from my coworkers in the DEI large groups and small groups have brought me humility and challenged me to be a better advocate for disenfranchised groups.”

APHC’s DEI initiatives have already had an impact on organizational policies. With support from APHC leadership and in line with DEI goals to demonstrate accountability and commitment to DEI in the workplace, the DEI Advisory Council initiated the process to permanently establish an APHC DEI Program. In conjunction with this objective and in alignment with EO 14035, the Council expanded its focus to include issues of accessibility. To this end, starting in FY2022, the Council began operating under the new moniker, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) Advisory Council. The Council also conducted an APHC policy review, which resulted in suggested changes to human resource policies such as the recommendation of a demographically-diverse interview panel for all GS13-15 hiring actions that require a panel. This recommendation is a necessary step to ensure that applicants feel that they have a fair and equitable chance for employment opportunities within APHC.

To better meet the needs of the organization, the DEIA Council surveyed the APHC workforce again in October 2021 and presented the findings in a recent staff engagement to kick off FY2022. The survey assessed the ability to have discussions about race in the workplace; the organization’s engagement level regarding racial issues; experiences of workplace discrimination; and staff feedback on DEI FY2021 offerings.

Notably, 75 percent of all survey respondents stated that they rarely engage in discussions about race, nearly a third of those reporting that they didn’t feel safe doing so. Further, 19 percent of respondents stated that they had experienced discrimination of some type in the past year in the workplace. The most commonly cited discrimination experiences were based on gender (59 percent), race (39 percent) and age (34 percent). Survey respondents who indicated they attended at least one FY2021 engagement reported high satisfaction levels, ranging from 83 percent to 97 percent.

As the Council enters its second year, it is committed to expanding topics of discussion, addressing survey findings, and encouraging staff engagement. The council recently welcomed new members to assist with planned DEIA efforts, including discussion topics like pronouns and gendered language, racial extremism in the military, ableism and ageism. Further, educating the workforce on how DEIA constructs (e.g., discrimination) impact health outcomes remain a top priority for the Council.

The Army Public Health Center focuses on promoting healthy people, communities, animals and workplaces through the prevention of disease, injury and disability of Soldiers, military retirees, their families, veterans, Army civilian employees, and animals through population-based monitoring, investigations, and technical consultations.