A lifelong interest in diversity, equity and inclusion led Vanessa Greene to the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute, which works to address racial and ethnic disparities in health care. Greene joined GRAAHI as CEO in October, moving from Hope College where she held leadership positions in diversity and inclusion for nearly 17 years. She took over GRAAHI leadership as the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected African Americans and brought greater attention to long-existing racial disparities in health care. As GRAAHI Board Chairman Paul Doyle said upon Greene’s hiring: “Now, more than ever, it is important to continue to highlight the systemic inequities and racial health disparities in our community.”
What attracted you to GRAAHI?
I’ve been working in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion at Hope College for 17 years. My interest in that work was really formed by the fact that I grew up in the ’60s in the Civil Rights movement. Growing up in that era, I was always interested in issues of equity. I also had my first job out of college where I worked for a state-funded program working with people with disabilities. All of my past work has evolved into my passion for the work of GRAAHI. So, when I learned about GRAAHI and learned that there was this organization in Grand Rapids that dealt with health inequity, specifically in the African American community, I said, ‘This is where my passion really meets my full purpose.’ Everything I’ve done in the past has been aligned in preparing me for this moment.
As we head into 2021 with the COVID-19 pandemic, what’s your top priority?
Making sure the African American community and communities or color are prepared to deal with this worsening crisis. It is the top goal for GRAAHI. In doing that we need to amplify our education, research and advocacy to make sure the community is aware of the things that we’re doing, that people have access to resources and testing and understanding the importance of the vaccine, and that we’re working with them in ways they can protect themselves and their loved ones.
To get the message out we have determined that we definitely need additional financial resources. Engaging the community in ways the community can walk alongside us, partner with us and support us is also very important and high on our list.
What do you hope to see GRAAHI accomplish in your first year?
Looking at things more from the grassroots level, getting out and seeing a decrease in the ways that COVID is impacting the African American community and the community at large. We want to be a leading voice in that, a leading voice in the educational component of it, a leading voice in advocacy and research. Specific goals we have looked at are leading in the promotion and the participation of clinical trials and vaccinations within the African American community. That will require eliminating some of the distrust African Americans historically have had in the health care system. One of the ways we want to do that is by increasing culturally sensitive communication channels between the health care providers and African American patients and build that trust so that we can achieve high-quality care and better outcomes related to prevention, diagnosis, treatment and management.
The events of 2020 brought racial disparities in health care to the forefront. How do you think that will effect change in the health care system going into 2021 and beyond?
What happened this past year with the protests, with the tragedies that we saw, stirred up the community and it created an awakening and a higher level of awareness and consciousness about some of the systemic issues that the Black community has been talking about for decades. One of the things that really came out of it was the recognition of systemic racism as a pandemic. Many of our leading health providers have seen the pandemic of racism as a health crisis. Moving into 2021, that level of awareness is heightened and an organization like the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute is positioned to be a leading voice in continuing to build those relationships with the health care providers as they’re having a greater understanding of how systemic issues and structures of racism lead to many of the health disparities that communities of color face.
I see 2021 as a year we can come together collectively now that awareness has been increased and heightened and people are very much engaged at levels that we have not seen in the past.
What gives you hope for next year?
I’m looking for transformational and sustainable growth within GRAAHI, particularly within our four pillars: education, research, advocacy and community engagement. If we really focus and build community support, partnerships and collaboration around those four areas, we can achieve that transformative and sustainable growth within our community, particularly around health equity.
What can the new president do in 2021 to improve health care in America?
To make health care accessible to all people. Accessible and affordable. That just covers everything in terms of health care. And to fight hard and be diligent to just make sure every American citizen has access to quality health care. It should be a right for everyone.