Diversity and inclusion: My journey

An expert in communication shares her experience learning more about the ins and outs of diversity, equality, and inclusion in the veterinary industry.

I’ve been on a journey during the past year, starting with the murder of George Floyd—a journey of awareness, new learnings and understandings, and concern for the need to belong.

Awareness

It began with a new awareness of how unfinished the work of racial justice is. I think some of us thought that issue was taken care of with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I was wrong. I read What Does It Mean to Be White? by Robin DiAngelo and realized that, unlike me, people of color are aware of their skin color every time they look into the mirror or step out to flag down a taxi. As a White, heterosexual woman, I benefit from privilege that I didn’t even realize I had.

That little bit of awareness prompted me to read Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. We have a lot of reckoning to do to address the legacy of 400 years of slavery. My Black friends have 12 generations of slavery in their family. Many of them know, firsthand, the stories of beatings, exclusions, and family separation carried down through several generations. When a local organization in San Diego, California, began its program by acknowledging that we are living on Kumeyaay land, I became aware of the work we need to do to reckon with the colonists’ genocide of the American Indians going back more than 400 years.

Learning and understanding

Terms new to me were popping up in the media, and I wanted to learn about them. They include DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual and/or ally), and gender dysphoria (a feeling of discomfort that might occur when one’s gender identity differs from their biological sex determined at birth).

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has renewed its efforts to bring diversity, equity, and inclusion to veterinary medicine. The AVMA board adopted its first policy on diversity in 2004 and is collaborating with 10 affinity organizations focused on DEI led by the Multicultural Veterinary Medical Association.1

One of the resources is AVMA’s new Brave Space Certificate Program.2 It came along just when I was beginning my journey. The first topic covered in the program is a discussion of unconscious bias. It made me realize that my “white privilege” undoubtedly carries with it biases that are unintentional and implicit. I saw how that has been a factor in the makeup of the veterinary profession, referred to as the “whitest profession” in the country.3

I dug deeper. In exploring what lies behind the veterinary profession being “the whitest profession,” I learned about research reporting that “underrepresented veterinary students may experience a less welcoming social and academic climate on their campus as a result of overhearing intolerant language, lacking mentors, and experiencing discomfort in less diverse learning environments.”4 While still a veterinary student, Dr Tierra Price didn’t see people in veterinary medicine who looked like her. She founded BlackDVMNetwork,5 a community that connects Black veterinary professionals.

I realized that my journey required me to engage in conversations that may be difficult. I began with conversations “from a distance” with Emmanuel Acho, a professional athlete playing with the NFL. He has made himself and his views known on short YouTube pieces, which can be readily found on Google. His book, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, facilitates more conversations “from a distance.”6

My continued reading led me to learn that in July 2020 a #WakeUpVetMed movement was started that launched a petition with over 500 signatures to the AVMA. The petition is a call to action, detailing specific mechanisms that should be immediately implemented to help the profession achieve the goal of being more representative and inclusive.7

The Brave Space Certificate Program also helped to expand my learning around gender dysphoria. Gender is not binary, as I’d been taught, but can be very fluid. The programs helped me to understand cisgender (a person whose personal identity matches their biological sex at birth), transgender (a person whose gender identity differs from their biological sex at birth), and intersex (a person who is born with sex characteristics that do not fit binary notions of male or female bodies). I learned that different people use different pronouns (such as e/ey, em, eir, eirs, eirself),8 and I needed to understand and respect that. I now announce that my preferred pronouns are she, her, and hers, which is my way of inviting people to share their preferred pronouns.

To learn more about gender dysphoria, I watched TED Talks and other YouTube videos and then ventured into a face-to-face discussion. Because I was particularly eager to understand how it felt to be a lesbian in the veterinary clinic, I asked my veterinarian friend whether she would be comfortable talking about her experience. The conversation I sought turned out to be not that uncomfortable because my friend was happy to be recognized and asked about her experience. I came to realize why understanding DEI is important in the veterinary world. She told me that despite general discomfort, open conversations have brought about new awareness and changes at her hospital.

For example, her hospital has converted its restroom to a gender-neutral bathroom. It has removed from client forms any questions requesting the client’s gender. The forms now ask for pronoun preferences. In fact, all staff now indicate their pronoun preferences on their name tags to welcome those who choose a gender preference that is nonbinary. All staff have been trained to not assume that the person accompanying the client is a spouse to be addressed as Mr or Mrs. The hospital now uses diversity training videos for newcomers—and periodically for everyone—and supports LGBTQIA community events.

The discussions in the hospital resulted in team members becoming aware of jokes that can be offensive, and she told me about “allyship.” This refers to people who are allies for LGBTQIA folks and will call out inappropriate comments. In fact, she told me about one person who heard a teammate say, “Oh, that’s so gay,” and felt informed and empowered to remind her colleague that the expression was inappropriate.

Similar to the concept of “allyship,” I learned about Bystander Intervention Training, which has been recently launched to stop anti-Asian American and xenophobic harassment. As I have become aware of the violence against this population, I’ve made it my business to learn more about how I can be a responsible bystander through their free 1-hour training.9

Belonging

The DEI committees and task forces that have recently sprung up focus on diversity and equality. The third piece, inclusion, is sometimes more challenging, but my friend told me what it means.

When I commented that she sounds as though she feels included in her practice, she agreed. Then she told me that the first time she knew she really belonged was when the doctor who hired her asked about her partner. She recalled the quote by Vernā Myers, a leading diversity and inclusion expert, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” When she knew that her colleagues accepted, respected, and embraced her, along with her identity, she knew that she belonged.10

I visited another veterinary practice that is working on being aware of and learning about diversity. They want those who might be considered “marginalized” to be included. Their strategy is potluck luncheons, for which they invite each person to bring a dish of their heritage and to talk about it. Because most of the team members are White, they talk about growing up and the defining moments of their lives and those of their parents. Understanding another’s defining moments can explain many of their values and beliefs. Some can go back to immigrant parents or grandparents and share how they celebrate and view life. Inviting others to share their background and sense of identity can lead to a feeling of belonging. These luncheons have also led to discussions of other differences—everything from gender identity to different educational paths.

In the end, sharing enriches the entire team, because they come to appreciate and respect the views, feelings, and needs of each member. Being aware, learning, and helping everyone to belong leads to a more satisfying place to work and provides better outcomes for our patients.

Carolyn C. Shadle, PhD, is the founder of Interpersonal Communication Services, Inc. She is passionate about communicating with clients and teammates, writes extensively, and presents at veterinary conferences and hospitals. Her focus is various aspects of practice management, including communicating in the virtual world, inclusive communication, gaining confidence when engaging with clients, and managing difficult conversations. She can be reached at www.VeterinarianCommunication.com.

References

  1. Diversity and inclusion in veterinary medicine. American Veterinary Medical Association. Accessed May 12, 2021. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/diversity-and-inclusion-veterinary-medicine
  2. Brave Space Certificate Program. American Veterinary Medical Association. Accessed May 12, 2021. https://axon.avma.org/local/catalog/view/product.php?productid=125
  3. Thompson D. The 3 whitest jobs in America. The Atlantic. November 6, 2013. Accessed May 12, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/11/the-33-whitest-jobs-in-america/281180/
  4. Daniel AJ. Creating a path to diversity in the veterinary profession. Today’s Veterinary Practice. March/April 2021. Accessed May 12, 2021. https://todaysveterinarypractice.com/creating-a-path-to-diversity-in-the-veterinary-profession/
  5. Welcome to our family. BlackDVMnetwork. Accessed May 12, 2021. www.blackdvmnetwork.com
  6. Acho E. Uncomfortable conversations with a black man. New York, New York. EA Enterprises, LLC. 2020.
  7. Platt SR. The changing face of veterinary medicine. Today’s Veterinary Practice. November/December 2020. Accessed May 12, 2021. https://mydigitalpublication.com/publication/?m=60565&i=676150&view=articleBrowser&article_id=3782566
  8. Gender pronouns. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Plus (LGBTQ+) Resource Center. Accessed June 3, 2021. https://uwm.edu/lgbtrc/support/gender-pronouns/
  9. Get trained. Hollaback! Accessed May 12, 2021. https://www.ihollaback.org/harassmenttraining/
  10. The Vernā Myers Company tvmc. Accessed May 17, 2021. vernamyers.com