When Cletis Earle stepped in as CIO at Penn State Hershey at the start of 2020, he barely had time to walk through the door before having to deal with a major disruption. By the time the organization wrapped its arms around that issue, Covid-19 started developing into pandemic.
Talk about a baptism by fire. “Everything had to go on the backburner,” said Earle in a recent interview. Fortunately, Penn State Health’s IT team adopted an “agile, fail-fast methodology” that enabled them to deal with the challenges at hand, while building up the skills needed to prepare for a potential second wave.
However, another issue surfaced for which no one was truly equipped when the death of George Floyd shined a light on racial injustice. And in fact, it was Covid-19 that removed so many of the issues that usually serve as distractions from the news – for example, the cancellation of sports events and movies – and brought the topic of racism to the front burner.
In our interview, Cletis opened up about the inequities that still exist in industries like healthcare IT, what leaders can do to address the lack of diversity, and why he believes that having tough conversations is so important – but at the same time, it can’t be all talk.
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[Click here to read Part 1]
- Talking about race can be extremely uncomfortable. But until individuals are willing to take that step, “We’re never going to make any strides” toward tolerance.
- Racism doesn’t come naturally; “it’s taught.” Fortunately, leaders have an opportunity to change those teachings by making awareness a priority.
- Diversity initiatives can be extremely beneficial; but only if approached the right way. “What this movement doesn’t need is for people to throw money at it.”
- It’s critical for leaders to understand two things: communities dominated by people of color were hit harder by Covid, and there’s an inherent distrust when it comes to some aspects of healthcare.
Q&A with Cletis Earle, Part 2
Gamble: These are uncomfortable conversations that have to happen. It seems a lot of this stems from a lack of awareness, whether it’s intentional or not, that not everyone has the same opportunity, and that can be a roadblock.
Earle: It is. These are crucial conversations, and tough conversations. One of the problems here is that there are things we don’t talk about. We don’t talk about religion. We don’t talk about politics. The other thing we don’t talk about is race. It’s a hard discussion. Many times people get uncomfortable discussing race because it makes them feel uncomfortable. Well, if it makes you feel makes uncomfortable, imagine how it makes us feel.
Of course, not everything is about race. We get that, but there is a lot that has to do with it. And until we get comfortable talking about uncomfortable subjects, we’re not going to make any strides. Because we’re going to act as if it doesn’t exist. Luckily, there are so many amazing people who are doing something about it. That’s the most touching thing for me; to see that there are so many people — not just people of color—who are out there fighting this fight and saying, ‘Enough is enough.’
And so, I do believe discussions need to happen. We need to challenge the status quo. Challenge people when you hear them making racist jokes or any other offensive types of jokes, and say, ‘We’re not going to tolerate it anymore. It’s not appropriate.’ I’m often asked, ‘When people do that, do I stand up to that individual right there?’ I’m not telling anybody what they should or should not do, but I can tell you that those comments — that hate, even if it’s in the form of a joke — perpetuate racial disparities. They perpetuate that mindset. And so, you have to start somewhere.
Gamble: I think the instinct for some people is not be polite and not say anything. But if you do that, you’re pretty much saying ‘I agree,’ right?
Earle: Right. Silence is acceptance. The sad part is, racism is taught. It doesn’t come naturally. Some of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen are from Martin Luther King’s passages about young black boys and white boys playing together. They haven’t been subjected yet to the virus of racism. And so we know that it’s not in our DNA; it’s taught. If we start to have those crucial discussions, maybe we can turn the dial a bit. That’s progress.
Gamble: My kids are still young, so they may not realize that racism happens. But they do hear and see things, and when that happens, you have to have those difficult conversations as a parent.
Earle: I can tell you, there was a vile thing that happened a few years ago that was one of the most disappointing things I’ve ever heard. We learned that when my daughter was 6 and my son was 9, they were being called the N-word on the school bus on a daily basis. This was only a few years ago. They were being called the N-word on such a routine basis that they didn’t even realize it was a problem. I was so distraught by that. I didn’t know what to do as a parent; I felt that I had failed them, because I wasn’t able to protect them in this world of hate.
And we’re talking about kids who are 6 to 10 years old; we’re not talking about older kids. This was a bus full of children. So, where did they learn that word? They learned it somewhere — maybe at school, or from their parents or siblings. But what does that tell us when kids hear it so often that they don’t realize it’s an issue. We have a problem in this country. It’s the greatest country in the world, but we do have a problem.
Gamble: Is your organization doing any awareness initiatives around bias? And is that something that you think can gain traction?
Earle: We have an amazing Chief Diversity Officer [Lynette Chappell-Williams] who has put programs in place to help increase awareness. It’s definitely something we’ve started to see more in recent years. I can’t imagine a time when it was naturally embedded in an organization. As a matter of fact, for some organizations — including the one I came from — it’s not even on the radar. It’s nowhere near the radar. But at this organization, which I’ve blessed to part of, it’s a priority.
These activities are great. They allow us to think about exposing, teaching, and training in a much more efficient way. Through these activities, we often hear people ask, ‘What can I do? How can I help?’ That’s transformation.
I really encourage as many organizations as possible to look at diversity programs — but don’t do it just to check a box. What this movement does not need is for people to just throw money at it or say, ‘We’re with you.’ A few weeks ago, I was watching an awards show on BET, and it was interesting because there were so many companies advertising during the event. And it was great content. But when I thought about it a little more, I said, ‘This is great, but it would make more sense if they had advertisements in regions that really need it.’ Telling people of color, ‘We’re here for you’ and ‘we’re behind you’ is nice, but we want that transformation to take the next step. Go tell the rest of the world; otherwise it’s just talk. It’s time for action. Let’s do this on a global scale. If you we want to have real conversations, you can’t just show support to the community you think you’re placating. Show it to everybody. Show it to the world.
Gamble: Let’s talk about CHIME’s Diversity Committee. What are some of the plans there?
Earle: When I was chairman of CHIME back in 2018, one of my passions was diversity. We created this committee, and I was asked to continue to chair as I rolled off the CHIME Board. I’m still passionate in pushing the efforts of diversity and trying to spearhead how the health IT industry can made a change. We continue to meet as a committee. We had one of our major kickoffs at last year’s Fall Forum, and we’ll continue to hold virtual forums in the area of healthcare IT diversity.
We were blessed to have CHIME help us; they established a few hundred thousand dollars for the diversity campaign. Along with the Women of CHIME, we’re in the process of awarding scholarships to allow individuals to partake in programs and activities. We’re also looking at other areas to potentially disperse some scholarship funds to individuals outside of CHIME. We’re continuing to push the envelope. One of our Foundation members asked, ‘How can we make a difference?’ They’re putting the money where their mouth is by providing exposure to technologists and leaders who may not otherwise have been exposed. It’s a common theme, because it’s so important. We need to help with exposure and give people the ability to move forward.
Gamble: Is mentoring part of that?
Earle: Mentoring is absolutely essential. More is certainly going to come out of the diversity initiative. We’re going to continue to push efforts to change the narrative — not just through talk, but through action. That’s where the rubber meets the road. We need actionable transactions at this point.
Gamble: Another important topic is diversity on leadership teams. What do you think are the keys to driving change there?
Earle: The keys here are education and training. We’ve seen that Covid has hit communities of color significantly harder. It’s my thinking that there’s not just a disconnect in terms of care; there’s also a significant amount of distrust of data and information, particularly of authority figures and leaders of organizations like the CDC. You have to remember that these communities were impacted and many of them were experimented on, and those wounds are still fresh. How can we expect a community to trust these parties when such atrocities have occurred?
And so, we need to think about things in a different way. If we keep looking the other way when communities aren’t necessarily healthy, you end up with something like Covid. It’s actually possible that a small — or, as in this case — a very large incident ends up blowing up the entire system, because now it is a hotbed that is perpetuated
by another outcome.
Some may not agree, but I think the two are related. I think there are correlations, and we owe it to our community to not look the other way, otherwise it will end up biting us. That’s where we are right now. We need to do a deep dive to figure out whether we are willing to continue this charade, or if we’re going to answer the call and address the issue as it is.
Gamble: That makes sense. Well, I want to thank you so much for your time. It’s not a safe discussion, and not something where there’s one viewpoint. I think it’s so important to have these talks.
Earle: It is. And I understand there is sometimes a disconnect, but that’s the thing. Let’s talk about it. Let’s have that discussion. Let’s not be afraid. Let’s chat about it, and do it respectfully. We can do it where we don’t have to throw salvos at each other. And if it means we agree or disagree, that’s fine.