A major new anti-racism initiative within the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai seeks to reimagine workplace culture to better support employees of color
The department has a history of focusing its research on health disparities but did not have experience thinking about how racism may affect its own faculty and staff. In 2020, when the murder of George Floyd galvanized the country, the department took steps to look inward to determine what concrete action could be taken to better support employees across the department and to combat racism.
People of color often feel pressured to work harder and be perfect in their careers compared to their white colleagues, says Luz Guel, co-chair of the Department’s Anti-Racism, Intersectionality, Diversity and Equity (AIDE) Committee. For people of color, who have to work in environments that are rooted in white supremacy culture, their job can become a place of trauma, they say.
“We are currently going through a “syndemic” and everybody’s burnt out and still being assigned more tasks. When you hear your BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] employees especially saying, ‘I can’t do this, I’m so burnt out,’ if you still say, ‘Can you get it done by Tuesday?’ instead of “Please take the time to rest” that is still feeding into white supremacy culture,” says Luz Guel, who works within the Mount Sinai Transdisciplinary Center on Early Environmental Exposures.
The Center, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, is Icahn Mount Sinai’s research hub focused on how the environment shapes health outcomes. In addition to conducting research, the Center partners with organizations in East Harlem and the South Bronx, both communities of color, with the aim of creating healthier communities.
The Center’s work is a cornerstone of the Mount Sinai Institute of Exposomic Research, which is advancing how we understand the effects of multiple exposures throughout the lifespan, from the chemicals in our food, to the air we breathe, to structural racism and social influences.
“The path to racial justice begins by looking inwardly at ourselves and where change is needed, and then tackling together the hard work that needs to be done in our homes, in our schools and institutions, in our workplaces, and in our larger communities,” said Maida Galvez, MD, MPH, Professor of Environmental Medicine and Public Health and Pediatrics and co-chair of the AIDE Committee. “Those of us working in public health and preventive medicine can champion racial justice and healthy environments for all in part by modeling what that looks like,” she added.
Inside the new “affinity spaces,” first offered on a voluntary basis over Zoom, then in physical spaces in 2022, employees will be encouraged to resist American workaholism and make time to rest, reflect on anti-racism practices, and heal – by building community.
Racism causes people of color to exist in a permanent ‘hypervigilant’ state that wears down the body and soul, says Almetta Pitts, an anti-racism consultant based in Seattle who is working closely with the Department’s AIDE Committee. Pitts will teach breathwork and other somatic wellness techniques during workshops in the new spaces. She also aims to help infuse anti-racism concepts into school curriculum as part of the initiative.
All Department employees including faculty, students, and staff will be invited to join affinity spaces. Employees of color will be separated from white employees to unpack the effects of racism. Individuals with shared identities will be encouraged to share their own experiences with racism, and, together, develop corrective measures to support the Department’s anti-racism goals.
“We will be figuring out collectively what we need and how to communicate those practices and visions to leadership,” says Guel.
White employees will be encouraged to take the lead on conversations around racism instead of relying on co-workers of color.
“I think it’s going to create a relief that every space we [people of color] enter, we do not have to educate white people around racism,” says Guel.
Employees of color will learn self-support strategies that include daily check-ins. There will be no lectures, presentations, or town hall-style forums. Instead, the affinity spaces will offer small-group discussion prompts to learn and unlearn together, and time and space for rest and music.
Spontaneous dance parties are allowed.
“Finding joy is a form of resistance,” Guel says. “Sharing community, dancing and laughing with one another are small moments to feel liberated when the status quo tells us to think solely at the individual level. It’s those small celebrations that keep me grounded and remind me of the healing powers of community. We can hold each other while we learn and unlearn the ways we perpetuate and have internalized systems of oppression.”
Creating a supportive environment for health care workers of color can also have a downstream effect of providing better healthcare.
“If you’re not well, how are you serving your clients? If you know the injury of being humiliated and shamed within the workplace, you won’t be able to show up as a practitioner,” says Pitts. “You’ll have quick burnout.”