CUIMC Staff Diversity Council Fosters an Inclusive Workplace

January 29, 2020
Members of Columbia University Human Resources, including Tonya Richards, chief diversity and inclusion officer at CUIMC, second from right. (Photo: Michael DiVito)
Members of Columbia University Human Resources, including Tonya Richards, chief diversity and inclusion officer at CUIMC, second from right. (Photo: Michael DiVito)

When Tonya Richards spots an opportunity, she pursues it with energy and passion. In 2016, she started a new job as a member of the human resources team at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and immediately noticed that more could be done to engage staff members in the workplace, especially around diversity initiatives. 

With the support of her supervisor, William Innes, chief human resources officer at CUIMC, she launched the CUIMC Staff Diversity Council. This group of 12 strategic leaders from human resources and the four professional schools on campus meets quarterly to develop, implement, and evaluate initiatives that create a more inclusive community at the medical center. In the months after the council launched, each school formed a steering committee to implement programs. 

“The steering committees make things happen,” said Richards. “Anyone can join them and make a positive difference. The committees come up with ideas, such as having an event around implicit bias training or forming employee resource groups.”

“An employee resource group is sort of like a home base for staff,” she added. “We started these groups so employees would have a safe space to communicate and also to have fun. Employees who participate in these groups learn more about each other, get to give back to the CUIMC community, and feel like they’re valued at the medical center.”

The momentum around employee resource groups has taken off since 2019, when the council and its steering committees organized a number of events to test the appetite of employees for varied workplace activities. Events included a Caribbean cultural celebration and a panel of Latinos and Latinas discussing their careers. Eight employee resource groups were formalized based on feedback from colleagues. 

Employee resource groups have been formed for individuals who identify as African, Black, and Caribbean, disabled, Asian/Pacific Islanders, Latinx, LGBTQ+, veterans, and women. Though these groups coalesce around people with shared life experiences or cultural backgrounds, anyone is welcome to join the groups. For example, the African, Black, and Caribbean Employee Resource Group invites the CUIMC community to take part in its upcoming events for Black History Month. Events include a presentation on Feb. 5 by George Jenkins, DMD, assistant professor of dental medicine and assistant dean of the Office of Access, Equity, and Inclusion at Columbia’s College of Dental Medicine, and a monthly book club that will kick off with a discussion on Feb. 12 featuring Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of “Patsy.” 

As for Richards, her efforts were formally recognized when she became the chief diversity and inclusion officer at CUIMC last year. “I think this speaks volumes that there’s a vested interest in diversity and inclusion here at CUIMC,” said Richards. “I would do this job without pay, that’s how much I love it and how important I think it is to our community.”

Anyone interested in joining a steering committee and/or starting a new employee resource group should contact Richards at