Black History Month spotlight: Thoughts on leadership from 7 healthcare execs

In honor of Black History Month, which runs through February, Becker's Hospital Review asked Black leaders in healthcare to share their insights on leadership.

Here are seven healthcare leaders who offer words of celebration for their heritage and what it means to be a Black healthcare leader:

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, MD. Senior Vice President and Chief Clinical Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer for Highmark Health/Allegheny Health Network (Pittsburgh): I am so humbled to be lifted up as a leader — but especially as a black leader here in the Pittsburgh area. Born in Uniontown and raised in McKeesport (both south of Pittsburgh), a proud daughter of Wilbur (a coal miner/steel worker) and Beatrice (a homemaker with an eighth-grade education), I was always challenged to lead, and never found myself wanting for those challenges.

A strong, faith-based family and a poor but driven community have served as the foundation for elevating the "Blackness" in front of my title. My role models were those who led by example — people like my parents, my school crossing guard, the only physician in town (Dr. Lanauze), and the many others who were community leaders in my eyes. I learned from them, and I am now grateful for the recognition and responsibility of being a role model and sponsor for others.

As a minoritized individual (African-American, over 50, female, and a disabled veteran), I have found very few leaders who look like me in the in the C-suite. Fortunately, Highmark Health is committed to creating opportunities for African-Americans as part of their hiring strategy. I am thrilled to be a part of this leadership team, and I am excited to be able to help Highmark shape and implement that strategy.

Novlet Mattis. Senior Vice President and Chief Digital and Information Officer of Orlando (Fla.) Health: As someone born and raised in Jamaica, I am keenly aware of the opportunities the U.S. has afforded me like no other place in the world. I started my career as a coder for AT&T and today I am proud to have attained senior executive roles in IT and healthcare. Certainly, education, hard work and perseverance were key to my reaching this level, but historically for women and African Americans, determination and perseverance have also been powerful tools. Those qualities shaped our ability to deliver expected results and positioned us for success. Even more, they continue to be the impetus for valuable contributions to our nation that reflect the rich and multifaceted influence of the Black Diaspora across America. This is a reward that organizations experience when they commit to diverse and inclusive work environments.

No matter where my professional journey started, I, like other leaders, stand firmly on the shoulders of legendary figures whose resilience helped them meet challenges to educate, inspire, uplift, entertain and lead. These icons are as varied as Mary McLeod Bethune and Colin Powell, Sidney Poitier and Madame C. J. Walker. Collectively, they have inspired my career path and dedication to helping others — especially women and people of color — find the right sponsors and resources to transcend barriers to their success. Fortunately, Orlando Health shares and supports this commitment.

Trina Parks. Corporate Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at RWJBarnabas Health (West Orange, N.J.): Our greatest strength as healthcare professionals is our people — the doctors, nurses and staff who form the backbone of our hospitals and healthcare systems. We come from every background, culture and walk of life, bringing a wide range of perspectives that enhance our ability to serve others and add richness and depth to our communities. Beyond any one day on the calendar, Black History Month calls us to a deeper awareness of and appreciation for the African American community, celebrating Black heroes and accomplishments, while grappling with continued challenges to freedom and justice. On the dawn of this Black History Month, we were confronted with the violent killing of Tyre Nichols, a painful reminder of the urgency of our work to unlearn, unravel and address the racism deeply embedded in our institutions, culture and society. 

As a woman of color and head of diversity and inclusion at RWJBarnabas Health, I have witnessed firsthand the ways our different strengths, stories and experiences come together to create collective impact and heighten our success. The challenges facing our industry are complex, and we need every voice at the table to find meaningful, lasting solutions. We must continue to champion leaders from all backgrounds, prioritize DEI in our organizations, and commit ourselves to antiracism and health equity. These are central tenets of our mission and responsibility to ensure everyone can live the healthiest life possible. Whether it's through the work of our clinicians or the advocacy of our administrators, I've seen my organization embrace that obligation wholeheartedly, and I am proud of what we've accomplished together.

Dennis Pullin. President and CEO of Virtua Health (Marlton, N.J.): When it comes to leadership, it's easy to get caught up in who you think you're supposed to be. We as leaders need to be transparent, approachable and authentic — people see through you when you're not. Every leader should take the time to see, feel and understand how they are impacting the people around them. It's amazing what happens when you get clear on who you are and what matters to you.  

Black History Month is a reminder that health equity is something we must work for. Generations of people have faced barriers in accessing affordable, high-quality care. It is not enough to hope the march of progress will move things in the right direction. Those of us in leadership roles must bear the responsibility to make a difference.

Avonia Richardson-Miller, EdD. Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer of Hackensack Meridian Health (Edison, N.J.): I am authentically myself in my role and my true being as a Black woman. These facets of my identity inform my actions, allowing me to bring unique perspectives to my work. When I think about Black History Month, the struggles and oppressions our people have overcome, and yet still endure today, are in the front of my mind. This year's theme, Black Resistance, centers on reflecting on past struggles. Still, I think about the progress our communities have made, including Black figures and their successes at Hackensack Meridian Health. Positioning health equity as a human rights issue allows my team to focus on healthcare disparities and highlight ongoing concerns affecting Black patients and other people of color. That is why, as part of our celebrations this month, the diversity, equity and inclusion team is showing screenings of the film "Toxic: A Black Woman's Story." The film follows a pregnant Black woman and the systemic hurdles expecting Black mothers face regarding maternal care. The American Hospital Association provided us with the film as part of its commitment to developing cultural competence, awareness and health equity in the healthcare industry. 

After each screening, Hackensack Meridian Health will host a panel discussion featuring experts and staff to foster meaningful conversation and understanding. I am proud to lead a team that prioritizes ongoing education, dialogue and cultural celebrations among its employees. For Black History Month, we are partnering with the Black Team Member Resource Group, where our physicians and staff can unite to support each other, learn from each other's unique and shared experiences, and build a more inclusive, equitable world inside and outside the walls of our hospitals. The camaraderie and professional growth this group and others like it provide continue to make Hackensack Meridian Health an inclusive environment for all. 

Nikki Sumpter. Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer of Atlantic Health System (Morristown, N.J.): What I treasure most about my role as a leader, is the opportunity to support & mentor the next generation of leaders. Whether that is Atlantic Health's 18,000 caregivers and team members or any one of the members of the community we care for, my words and actions can inspire healthier lifestyles, and better and more equitable care. I am grateful to be able to lead within an organization tackling health equity and standing up to make a difference and a more positive future for all.

Nichole Wilson. Vice President of Community Health Operations for Indiana University Health (Indianapolis): The leader and person that I am today are shaped by the stories, struggles and perseverance of members of my family who paved the way for others. My grandmother was a nurse's aid for over 30 years at the very hospital system where I now serve as a vice president. My mother spent many years as an employee of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and she is still in the health field. One of my aunts is a nurse, and I volunteered at a young age in the physician practice where she worked. Another aunt has worked in the health insurance industry for her entire career. Seeing black women work in healthcare settings was a part of the fabric of my life growing up. Although their stories have not been told publicly, they are woven into black history.

As a vice president of community health, I have the opportunity to honor the legacy of my family while directly giving back to the community I was raised in. I hope I can do at least half the job that the women in my life did to pave the way for other black women aspiring to be leaders in healthcare.

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