Antiracist, Justice, and Health Equity Committee at Mclean Hospital trains staff on empowered listening

Quote from James Baldwin “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

James Baldwin’s essential reminder serves as a guiding force for McLean Hospital’s Antiracist, Justice, and Health Equity Committee (ARJHE). Launched in June 2020, ARJHE was created in the context of the ongoing global Black Lives Matter movement, with the understanding that experiences of inequity, racism and health disparities of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities must be addressed as the highest priority at McLean.

“We’ve openly acknowledged that some of the barriers to creating a more equitable and just system exist within our own organization, and our best hope of addressing them systemically will come with a more complete and shared understanding of what they are,” says Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, PhD, a psychologist who directs the hospital’s College Mental Health Program and was named McLean’s first Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer last August.

With the support of ARJHE Senior Advisors Caitlin Nevins, PhD, and Lauren Wadsworth, PhD, Pinder-Amaker developed the Leading Through Empowered Listening initiative.

The initiative began by training hospital senior leaders to ensure “empowered listening” as opposed to “oppressive listening.” Oppressive listening behaviors are characterized by minimizing, interrupting, jumping to conclusions or briefly listening before coming up with quick solutions. (A model from Dr. Pinder-Amaker and Dr. Wadsworth’s forthcoming book: Did that just happen?! Beyond “Diversity”—Creating sustainable and inclusive organizations.)

Pinder-Amaker explains that training in listening is necessary “to make sure that our leadership was ready to respond effectively and not create additional harm or injury, unintentionally, by doing what leaders typically do—jumping too quickly to problem solving.

“We were really encouraged and a little bit blown away by the vulnerability and honesty that the senior leadership brought to those training sessions. People were quite candid about some of the anxiety they were holding.”

Nevins adds that the goal was “to teach leadership how to unlearn some of their learned behaviors and step into the process of engaging issues of race and bias in a new way.”

By October 2020, 55% of senior leadership had been trained in this model, which allowed for the start of the Antiracist, Justice, and Health Equity Listening Tour itself.

The Listening Tour virtual sessions took place hospital-wide, and each session included a trained “Listener” from senior leadership and a designated “Observer,” a member of McLean’s Multicultural Psychology Consultation Team (MPCT).

While the primary role of the Listener was to listen to the McLean community, the role of the Observer was intended as support, both for the employees sharing their experience and for the senior leadership members who were given feedback about their empowered listening skills. All participants were invited to formally evaluate the experience and document recommendations.

In line with the ARJHE Committee’s commitment to cultural humility and continued learning, the structure of the Listening Tour evolved based on the feedback from the community. What had started as a plan to listen unit-by-unit pivoted to affinity groups with employees given the option to join listening sessions specifically for BIPOC staff, trainees, non-clinical employees and others.

Pinder-Amaker, Nevins and Wadsworth note that many opportunities for learning occurred directly in the training and listening sessions themselves.

“Leadership was able to acknowledge on a certain level the fear of naming [the reality that racism] exists within the system. So many of us have been trained not to call it what it is.”

Caitlin Nevins, PhD
Director of Psychological Services, College Mental Health Program
McLean Hospital

By creating affinity spaces and sharing the race and ethnicity of the senior leaders who would be in each session, “we were really trying to be transparent about who’s going to be listening in the room,” says Melanie Hom, PhD, a clinical fellow in psychology who served both as an Observer and the primary data analyst. “This is an opportunity for folks to share personal, lived experiences.”

Further, Wadsworth explains that McLean groups and affinity spaces increased the anonymity of participants and allowed them to share their experiences outside the settings where they may have tried with harmful outcomes in the past, such as with their colleagues and supervisors.

After a series of sessions, the tour moved to what Pinder-Amaker describes as an anonymous phase, using surveys in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole. Results from the Listening Tour and Anonymous Surveys were shared with McLean during an April 13 webcast titled “Leading Through Empowered Listening: Findings and a Future Vision.” Scott L. Rauch, MD, McLean Hospital’s President and Psychiatrist in Chief, reaffirmed the hospital’s support of the ARJHE Committee. Pinder-Amaker says, “We made a commitment going into the tour that we would be completely transparent about the findings, so it was important to share our findings with the entire McLean community.”

The McLean team emphasizes the importance of listening as a starting point and using this valuable insight to inform the process of acknowledging wrongdoings, establishing equity and continually assessing how to serve and support patients, employees, vendors and the surrounding community.

This story was featured in Mass General Brigham’s 2021 Check-up on DE&I Report “Equity in a time of crisis.”