A Conversation with Tonya Richards, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for Staff

Tonya Richards joined the human resources team at CUIMC in 2016. In the five years since, she has helped to steadily advance conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for staff at the medical center. On July 1, Richards will officially begin a new role as Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for Staff.

Richards joined us for a conversation about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at CUIMC. We discussed the current work and her aspirations for future achievements at the medical center. 

Tonya Richards
Tonya Richards

Q: You have said that when you joined CUIMC in 2016, you noticed that we could be doing more in this area. What were those initial conversations like?

A: As a new employee here, I was in an unfamiliar environment with regards to the employee population. I was having a hard time trying to find a sense of belonging at the medical center.

I approached my boss, Chief Human Resources Officer Bill Innes, and said, “I’m not finding any DEI resources for staff.” When I did my research, there was so much for students, there was so much for faculty, but there just weren’t robust resources for our staff members.

Bill was encouraging, and he asked me to take this on as a project. I was able to leverage experience in employee engagement and DEI from previous roles, and while CUIMC is a much bigger place than my previous employers, the work was the work. So I just started doing it.

Q: As you look back on the past five years, what kind of progress have you seen throughout the medical center in terms of DEI?

A: One of the first things we did was create a very elementary strategic plan for diversity, equity, and inclusion for staff. Within my first six months, we created a Staff Diversity Council and a few steering committees that would help us execute our strategic plan—which may have been one page then, because we were really in our infancy.

But we started doing the work, and our efforts grew over time. Once we decided to kick off the employee resource groups, a lot of people started joining in our events, and participation has grown and grown. Last month, we co-sponsored a virtual event with CopeColumbia that talked about race and stress in the workplace. We had about 240 people registered to attend, which was excellent.

Even people outside of CUIMC have been reaching out to us to ask, “How are you guys doing this? How can we participate?” That tells me that we're really doing something right and that this was a real need.

Q: Your recent work has led to the creation of a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Staff Strategic Plan. What can you tell us about that plan so far?

A: We all know what happened in 2020. Things changed. HR was really challenged during the pandemic, and so were DEI practitioners with all the social unrest that occurred following George Floyd's murder. A lot of employees and department leaders reached out to me for help with how best to respond.

With the insights we acquired, together we created a five-year strategic plan for staff, built on recommendations from staff across the campus. The new plan updates the work we began in 2017 and is around five times the size of our initial document.

The mission lies in promoting equity and inclusion for all staff of CUIMC, and we aim to do that through four key goals: Programming and Engagement, Advocacy, Accountability, and Learning and Development.

As I said, we have made some progress in each of these areas. But as I take on this new role, I’m hopeful that we will be able to do the focused work that's necessary for making an impactful and sustainable change with regards to the culture at CUIMC. 

Q: What is your long-term vision for progress?

A: I hope to see a long-term shift with regards to what Columbia looks like, from a cultural perspective. One of the things that we're talking about within the next year is an engagement survey so that we can hear the voices of our staff members, find out what they’re looking for, and then ultimately share those results and implement recommendations.

I also want to see people question current norms and challenge their assumptions. Our trainings, events, and group sessions are all with the purpose of achieving that end. For instance, when it comes to DEI, we want people to approach every aspect and element of their work through these lenses. In the Human Resources arena, when thinking about recruitment we should look through a DEI lens. Retention, trainings, professional development, promotions—we need to look at all through a DEI lens. That's ultimately where I want CUIMC to be: a place where that is the norm. 

Q: Closing thoughts?

A: When I start this new role in July, my first step is to tour all the departments, because CUIMC and Columbia as a whole are very decentralized—which means the greatest impact can be achieved at the department level. I really want to have conversations with all the departments with regards to where they are on their DEI journey. One of the things that I've learned from having these conversations in the past is that people are at different points on that journey. I want to meet them where they are and help them get to that next level so we're all aligned with our organizational goals.

One thing I've heard people say, especially within the last year, is that DEI work is the responsibility of leadership. I think that's a fallacy, to be frank. I really feel that everyone needs to understand that they have a role to play in moving this agenda forward and making sure it's sustainable, it’s effective, and it's impactful.