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Grand Rapids native inspired to bring health equity to her hometown

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Metro Health - University of Michigan Health’s new VP of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion believes health equity is a matter of life-and-death for marginalized communities.
Rhae-Ann Booker, Ph.D., Metro Health - University of Michigan Health Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Rhae-Ann Booker, Ph.D., Metro Health - University of Michigan Health Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Rhae-Ann Booker

Read more about Dr. Booker's background, accomplishments and plans for health equity in west Michigan:

Rhae-Ann Booker remembers the day her mother sat down to tell her she would be attending a new elementary school.

“She said, ‘They are making some changes in the city. So now you are going to be riding a bus.’”

This didn’t make sense to a young girl who was used to walking down the block to the school she attended with family and friends in her predominantly African American neighborhood of Grand Rapids. Why would she have to take a 30-minute bus ride to a new school?

Booker recalled that moment as she reflected on changes in the community where she was born and raised, the hometown she loves. This is where she built a career out of dismantling barriers that hold people back – work that continues today as Metro Health – University of Michigan Health’s new Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

She brings a passion for health equity, describing it as a matter of life-and-death for marginalized communities. She believes that, when it comes to inclusion, everyone at an organization is a contributor – just as everyone is a beneficiary.

Describing her approach to diversity, Booker speaks with a clarity of purpose that stands in contrast to the policies her mother was trying to explain to her. And if riding a bus to school didn’t make sense to a young Rhae-Ann Booker, what she encountered at her new school at the end of that bus ride was even more confusing.

“My dad pastored a church in Grand Rapids for many years, and so I’m a preacher's kid,” she said. “We always interacted as a family with people from different backgrounds. And I just thought everyone felt that way. And so, I was amazed, and I was unprepared, to learn that people might not like you just because of your skin color, just because you’re one of those kids who got off the bus that came from the inner city of Grand Rapids.”

A lasting impression

Looking back with the perspective of a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) executive, Booker finds it hard to blame the children who made her feel unwelcome.

“As kids, we bring the learning from our parents. Sometimes it’s the love that our parents instilled in us. For others, sometimes it’s the fear. Sometimes it’s also the hate, the disdain,” she said. “What I encountered in elementary school was a reflection of what my classmates had heard from their parents or perhaps saw on television. So, in some ways, it wasn't their fault. It was just an outcome of our system, our society, our community.”

Years later, Booker would retain a fascination with how social systems work, how they can advance some population groups while holding others back. As she sought ways to dismantle barriers that marginalize some people, she remembered the lessons of busing.

“I think busing was instituted much like some of our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts of the day,” Booker said. “Sometimes, organizations and our different communities aren’t necessarily ready for it.”

The importance of motivation and structure

So, how do organizations prepare for effective DEI strategies? For Booker, it comes down to understanding the motivation – and making sure the organizational structure supports that. She quoted British organizational expert Arthur Jones, credited with the concept that “All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get.”

Booker said organizations must consider if they are motivated by mission and vision – or whether they are pursuing diversity, equity and inclusion practices for the sake of public appearance.

“I see a huge difference in those two approaches,” she said. “Your motivation, in my experience, informs how you go about this work, your commitment to it, your willingness to build an infrastructure for success and not to be content with hit or miss.”

Serving communities

Booker’s own motivation for this work began with a desire to understand how social systems interact. She might have pursued a career in medicine (one of her first jobs was in environmental services, cleaning rooms at the former Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids) but mentorship was unavailable to her at the time. She turned to studying sociology at Calvin College.

She did find mentorship later in her career, earning a master’s degree and a doctorate. She used these skills to help Calvin College and, later, Davenport University develop effective strategies and policies for diversity, equity and inclusion. Now, working for a health care system, she sees plenty of similarities to her experience in higher education.

“In both contexts, it’s important to for us, not only to just serve these individuals but to know that, in order to effectively serve them, we have to better understand them in their backgrounds, which means we have to develop, strengthen our cultural competency,” she said.

She looks forward to continuing to serve the community she loves. Her hometown has grown and evolved since the days of busing, she said, but she wants to see that continue. Health systems have a big role to play, she said, particularly in the area of health equity and earning the trust of marginalized populations.

 “It literally is life or death, when I think about the importance of individuals and communities, trusting that organization, trusting what that doctor is saying or what that nurse is communicating,” she said. “I am absolutely so excited by this opportunity to be addressing health equity issues. We think about wanting any community to thrive -- our health is at the core of it. I mean talk about foundation – that’s the foundation.”


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