Spurred by the unequivocal need to address inequities in healthcare and education, there have been a wellspring of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committees organized across departments in the University of Minnesota Medical School. Developing these committees to achieve actionable, measurable and impactful goals, however, requires a combination of strategy, passion and teamwork.

Thanks to work spearheaded by Katherine Lingras, PhD, LP, and Danielle Vrieze, PhD, LP, both assistant professors in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, a roadmap of best practices for setting up departmental DEI committees in academic health centers is now available. 

The preprint of their paper (currently in press with the Journal for Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings), “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts at a Departmental Level: Building a Committee as a Vehicle for Advancing Progress,” co-authored by Elizabeth Alexander, PhD, provides a framework for other departments to build similar programs. While many departments have established DEI committees within the last year, the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences pioneered their own in 2017, led by co-chairs Drs. Lingras and Vrieze. 

For this work, the department received the Outstanding Unit Award for Equity and Diversity, which honors exemplary DEI leadership and highlights units for transformational and sustainable change within the University of Minnesota.

Their model for developing a DEI committee includes six key ingredients, backed by experiences and lessons learned over the course of leading the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences’ DEI efforts. Their hope is that these steps help other departments develop their own committees and shed light on some of the challenges and considerations of leading this work.

Step 1: Leadership Support

Drs. Lingras and Vrieze suggest that an important first step is gaining investment from department leadership and positioning DEI as critical to institutional success, healthcare delivery, medical education and research. When Dr. Lingras joined the department, she inquired about the existence of a DEI committee, which, although conversations had begun, wasn’t yet in existence.

“The department chair said that she was very supportive of and interested in creating a committee,” Dr. Vrieze said. 

Sophia Vinogradov, MD, professor and head of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, charged Dr. Lingras and Vrieze with leading the group. 

“I think it's key for anybody leading this work to do it in partnership, or in some form of co- leadership,” Dr. Lingras said. “It’s a lot of work, and having another person to bounce ideas off of and talk through things with has been really important.”

Another important consideration is the cost associated with supporting quality DEI initiatives and goals. Through the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences’ financial support, the committee has been able to host visiting speakers and events, demonstrating a sustained emphasis on DEI. 

Step 2: Recruitment & Membership

During their presentation for the Dean’s Lecture Series, Drs. Lingras and Vrieze emphasized the importance of opening up recruitment versus appointing members. While individuals were initially appointed to the committee, they realized the advantages of open-call membership. 

“How we created the committee was an iterative process,” Dr. Lingras said. “With an open-call, we might get people who are passionate but didn’t necessarily immediately come to mind, and vice versa. The people who may have come to mind via the appointment process weren’t always interested or didn't have the bandwidth.”

Given the mission of the group, inclusion was of high importance. This was the department’s first committee that extended beyond faculty membership.

“A lot of committees are faculty driven and led, and we felt it was essential that there was representation across all roles and levels,” Dr. Vrieze added. 

Step 3: Purpose & Guidelines

Alongside creating a mission and guidelines, the department’s DEI committee conducted a climate and needs assessment survey. They also established guidelines that would be important for any working group, but especially important for historically marginalized populations in academics and for discussions of content that can be sensitive in nature. Some of these guidelines include active listening, speaking from the “I” perspective and respecting silence. 

The DEI committee’s charges include facilitating recruitment and retention of diverse faculty, staff and learners, fostering an inclusive and supportive climate and increasing awareness of and efforts to support the diverse needs of those served by the department. 

Step 4: Short & Long-Term Goals

“One thing that’s been really successful, which we were very intentional about doing, was setting short-term goals and then broader, long-term initiatives,” Dr. Vrieze said. “That approach helped us be super productive.”

Both “big picture” initiatives and “small wins'' are important to DEI work. One of the committee’s biggest endeavors has been organizing a regular DEI retreat. 

“We intend to do a DEI retreat every other year,” Dr. Lingras said. “That really brings people across the whole department together. The idea of setting aside and protecting time for people to attend and really engage is one of the biggest accomplishments.”

They’ve also established a book club, which started with just faculty and has expanded to include anyone interested. 

“This year, we all read ‘How to be an Anti-Racist’ by Ibram X. Kendi and shifted our model from opting in to opting out, so if someone couldn’t participate for whatever reason, they could opt out,” Dr. Lingras explained. “The idea of everybody participating was to create common language and to get traction around DEI approaches for the whole department to think about.”

The department has also audited patient and research forms for inclusivity, looked at learner recruitment practices, and is in the process of creating protocols and policy to reduce discriminatory interactions that providers and/or patients sometimes face. 

“We’re really making sure that we’re reaching a more representative, global group of trainees,” Dr. Vrieze said.

Step 5: Communication & Collaboration

Showcasing events and sharing success stories is another important ingredient in generating momentum around DEI activities. One of the first things they did was ensure their work was visible and prominent on their website, along with creating signage throughout the department to signal the value of DEI work. 

“We’ve been working on infusing these same approaches into other department activities and groups, encouraging people to own or lead the work and use us as a kind of consultant,” Dr. Lingras said. “The more people engage in this work, the more they want to do, which is great. From a sustainability and burnout perspective, it’s really important that people start to own the work across different sectors.”

Collaboration has been critical to maintaining energy and empowering the department to actively participate in the DEI committee’s mission.

“So often this work is sanctioned off, often to junior women or faculty of color,” Dr. Vrieze said. “We’re happy to be here and help and support, but this is everyone’s responsibility.”

Drs. Lingras and Vrieze also note the importance of their collaborations with the Medical School Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and the University’s Diversity Community of Practice for sharing resources across departments working toward common DEI goals. 

“This really helps us not reinvent the wheel and share resources,” Dr. Lingras said. “Many of the broad goals are similar, and sharing lessons learned with colleagues who are also engaged and invested in this work can not only conserve emotional and practical energy, but it can build supportive networks, which is essential for those doing this work.”

Step 6: Ongoing Evaluation

Both Drs. Lingras and Vrieze stress the importance of preliminary and ongoing evaluation of DEI efforts to measure outcomes and progress. For example, the survey they launched before establishing goals helped identify the department climate, as well as which experiences or identities were rated as feeling more “welcome” versus those on the lower end of the spectrum. They’ve also made feedback an important aspect of identifying strengths and opportunities, in addition to guiding what learning opportunities, events and activities are available.

“We strive to have our activities driven by what people are interested in,” Dr. Lingras said. “We want to be able to say that people asked for this, and it’s something that has evolved based on interest.”

The committee readministers the preliminary survey annually to track any changes in the department’s culture, facilitating a more nuanced examination of areas of opportunity. They’ve learned about and shared some of the challenges of leading systemic change, along with common barriers to carrying out DEI work. For departments just beginning this work, Drs. Lingras and Vrieze recommend an approach that meets people where they are. Departments can access shared resources, establish membership on the Medical School’s DEI Committee or reach out to Drs. Lingras or Vrieze for advice. 

“Any movement forward is good,” Dr. Lingras said. “Of course we want to be moving forward as quickly as we can, but starting somewhere and gaining motion is a great place to start.”

Watch the Dean’s Lecture Series presentation >>

Access resources shared by Drs. Lingras and Vrieze >>