Profiles in Health Equity: Duane Reynolds, Founder & CEO, Just Health Collective

After building a career in hospital management and healthcare consulting, Duane Reynolds gravitated towards the health equity space after leading several inclusion-focused initiatives. He founded in 2020, just as the pandemic was emerging, and since then the phone has kept ringing. Embracing “belonging” (which he terms as the intersection of health equity + diversity + inclusion) as a central principle, Just Health Collective helps organizations move towards equity in their workforces and in relation to the patients they serve. In this episode he shares some of his experiences, approaches and insights. With host and producer Rolf Taylor.

Episode Transcription

Rolf: Welcome to the Health Disparities Podcast. The program of Movement is Life, an initiative working towards health equity and reducing health disparities across race, ethnicity, gender, and geography. I’m Rolf Taylor, the series producer and host for this episode. Our special guest today is health equity and belonging expert Dwayne Reynolds. He’s founder and CEO of Just Health Collective, a wonderful organization whose mission is to guide organizations in creating cultures of belonging, enabling a fair and just opportunity for everyone to achieve optimal health. Dwayne, welcome to the podcast. I’m excited for our listeners to learn about you and the work of the Just Health Collective team.

Dwayne: Rolf, thank you so much for having me join you today. I’m really excited about our discussion and look forward to really having a great conversation today.

Rolf: I’ve pulled a few details from your bio. So, for example, you first studied public health and health management at Indiana University, then obtained a Master of Health Administration from the Ohio State University. So, after you got that done, what happened next?

Dwayne: Well, I started early on in my career in healthcare administration, actually in organizational development in a large healthcare system in Columbus, Ohio. So, I sort of cut my teeth in the healthcare field and learned about leadership development and organizational alignment and systemness and culture. So, it was a really, good foundation for the rest of my career. I spent the majority of my time in academic medical centers, running faculty practices. So, dealing with both clinical operations, the university book of business, which includes teaching and research. I worked my way up the ladder in several academic medical centers. And then, I made a move into management consulting. And in that era, I was consulting with health systems and medical groups around anything from vision strategy, all the way down to operational tactics and access issues. At the same time, I took on a role leading inclusion and diversity for our internal consulting firm. And so, that was really my first time officially accepting a professional role in that space though, I had worked across and been volunteering in various capacities in diversity and inclusion councils and employee resource groups for most of my career. Following that I was recruited to the Institute for Diversity and Health Equity to be the President and CEO of that organization. And the organization was really focused on helping hospitals and health systems across the country really understand what health equity was about, what diversity equity and inclusion is about and how they begin to transform their organization, looking at best practices that are occurring across the nation, and really trying to emulate and get organizations moving in that direction to really transform.

Rolf: And then you founded the Just Health Collective how long ago?

Dwayne: Believe it or not I founded the Justice Health Collective in January of 2020, and we officially launched in March of 2020, if you can imagine.

Rolf: I can imagine that’s a very interesting year to start a new organization.

Dwayne: It was. It was one of those things where, you know, of course, we had no clue the pandemic was coming, but I started in January getting, you know, the backend of the business set up. And ultimately I said to myself, well, this is either going to work or it’s not going to work, but I have invested a lot of time and I’m passionate about this work. So, March, 2020, we went ahead and launched and believe it or not have been very successful since that time, really because of the disparities that were raised to a national level with COVID and the social unrest due to killing of black Americans. And you know, the two things combined really created a synergy for the type of work that I do, because it’s all about going in and helping organizations understand disparities and health inequity, and systemic racism in healthcare.

Rolf: Now, the focus of your work at Just Health Collective is accelerating belonging, and that is the key word, I think that you use belonging. You define belonging as being at the intersection of three things. Firstly, diversity so the presence of differences and then equity, the process of addressing disparities and then inclusion, ensuring those that are different and underrepresented feel welcomed and valued. Could you expand on why embracing belonging is the most important thing to emphasize for your organization?

Dwayne: Sure. I think across the market, corporate organizations, nonprofit organizations, people are beginning to understand that belonging is really a concept of ensuring that everyone that is a part of your organization feels valued, feels psychologically safe, feels comfortable to contribute, to challenge the status quo, to help ultimately bring innovation into organizations. And so, when I think about the term, belonging, it encompasses both diversity, equity and inclusion, which are three component parts that ultimately have to be addressed in their individual areas, but then collectively understanding how one part impacts the other. So, that is why our organization is intentionally focused on advancing belonging and belonging combined with health equity, because we are laser focused on ensuring that we create a more just and equitable healthcare system.

Rolf: Something that we’ve discussed on the podcast before is that when you foster that sense of belonging and you build diverse teams, it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also a great way of creating value because actually diverse teams tend to perform better, right?

Dwayne: Absolutely, and there are many studies out there that indicate when organizations, particularly leadership teams are more diverse, they tend to outperform in terms of financial performance, but they also tend to create environments where employees feel more engaged and they’re better able to recruit in the market. So, you know, I think working on these types of activities again, is certainly a morally right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense.

Rolf: Something else that I think comes over from your literature is this idea about how important it is to be conscious to be intentional and to take a position of being anti-racist in order to achieve belonging. Could you expand on that a little bit?

Dwayne: We are in this period of awakening within our country and really more broadly the world particularly related to systemic racism and our definition of racism and what it is, I think has brought – so a lot of times people will think that racism is just about an individual and that it is the more overt things that happen with individuals. But in reality, when we talk about systemic racism, we’re talking about things that may seem very innocuous, things that, you know, may be microaggressions to folks that are in marginalized communities which was just small slights that ultimately contribute to their emotional wellbeing or lack thereof because of those micro aggressions. And so, becoming an anti-racist means that we move from a state of being non-racist. So, non-racist essentially means that theoretically, you will disagree with racism and its tenants, but you’re not necessarily taking action to do anything to deconstruct the system of racism. And so, we want people to move beyond being non-racist because that means you’re passive. Anti-racist means that you are taking action, that you are speaking up when you see something that is occurring that is racist. When you see something that is occurring that might feel innocuous but in fact, it actually creates an environment where people ultimately are affected by the words that people use, by the questions that people ask or the assumptions that people make. And so, if you thought of this as like a pyramid, you know, at the bottom of the pyramid, there are these very innocuous things like asking a black person if you can touch their hair, or assuming that a gay person is promiscuous automatically. So, these are small things that form the foundation of what racism is or what bias is, but ultimately those small things eventually add up to the top of the pyramid, where you start to see things like hate crimes. You start to see murder, genocide of different marginalized and racial, ethnic communities. And so, we’ve got to dismantle the bottom part of that pyramid so the rest of it falls and that takes anti-racism.

Rolf: So, I think what you’re kind of describing is that bottom part of the pyramid. There’s a lot of behavior where people are trying to do what’s comfortable to them and quite often, being in a neutral position feels more comfortable. The problem with the neutral position is that very often that’s enabling racism to be expressed where racism is kind of built into the system.

Dwayne: That’s right, when you’re neutral, it actually means that you are on the side of the oppressor, right, because you’re not actively working against the systems and structures that have been put in place to oppress and hold certain groups back from achieving equality and equity,

Rolf: That comfortable space, people stay in that comfortable space quite often because they feel that if they, if they become proactive or they embrace the idea of being anti-racist that, that means that they’re being political. But it seems like in the kind of settings that you’re talking about, where you’re looking to encourage high performing teams, it’s not a political act, it’s actually a positive business act, and it is a commercial act.

Dwayne: Yeah. Creating inclusion is not in and of itself political. Inclusion is about everyone. It’s about how we all connect as human beings and support and value each other, right. Unfortunately, politics or politicians, let’s say, have brought some of these issues into the political spectrum for their own gain, but that’s not really what it should be about, right. We are all here on this planet and we have to get along and you know, not always agree, but certainly be respectful of one another and our rights as human beings.

Rolf: So, when you, at a more practical level are going in to help organizations embrace these ideas and embrace diversity, embrace belonging, what are you doing? How are you doing that with the people that you’re working with?

Dwayne: That’s a great question and we do it in four different ways, but I’ll start by saying, we focus on both the internal culture of organizations and the external culture, or how they connect with their community, build trust within their community and ultimately support people getting to optimal health. So, there are really four buckets that Just Health Collective focuses on. The first is, consulting and implementation services. So, we can go into large scale assessments and help organizations come up with a prioritized strategic roadmap of actions that they can take over a course of time to help to move their organization forward. The second bucket I would categorize as strategic advisory and coaching services, executive coaching. So, sometimes organizations really don’t know where to start and need a bit of guidance in terms of challenges that they might be facing. Even before they could do an assessment, they need to understand how to get champions on board or how to address communications around these issues. So, we provide strategic advisory services and along that alliance, we can do executive coaching using what we call Inclusive Leader 360 Assessment, and then coaching a person through the process of transformation, internal, awareness, elimination of bias. The next bucket that I would point out is really training facilitation and retreats. So, we can focus on anywhere from the top of the organization at the board and C-suite, down to frontline employees and their training around things like unconscious bias, anti-racism, health equity, microaggressions, and the like. The final bucket that we have is a digital engagement community called the Just Health Collective Village. And the village is really meant to be a networking and learning community for professionals who are interested in furthering their knowledge base around health, equity, and belonging. And we oftentimes have companies that we work with who will want for instance, their diversity and inclusion council or health equity council, or employee resource groups to become a part of the village, because there’s a lot of shared learning that can occur from organization to organization. We have members from across the country. So, those are the things that we really do to bring the right type of services to organizations, to help in their transformation.

Rolf: You mentioned where companies have diversity and inclusion councils. It seems like there’s definitely a very positive trend that more and more organizations are establishing diversity councils. And I don’t know if anybody’s measuring that or charting that to see what’s been happening over the recent years and recent decades, but what are your thoughts on how that is changing? And I guess what I’m asking is, is this a real movement? Is this a real shift that’s taking place in the way, you know, corporate entities are looking at diversity and inclusion?

Dwayne: I absolutely believe so. You know, diversity inclusion has been a space that has evolved over many years really starting in corporate America. It was born out of Affirmative Action, but Affirmative Action really got a backlash because it was seen as unfair. But diversity then became the topic of bringing in, you know, different folks who have different demographic characteristics, different educational experience, different race, gender, etcetera. And then we started to focus on, if you have diversity, you also need to then think about the environment that you create in order to foster and benefit from the diversity that you have. So, that’s where inclusion was born out of. Of late, we have been talking about equity. So, now, it is about diversity equity and inclusion, which again, we term as belonging, but it is really about thinking about those systems and structures that have created disparities in things like pay, disparities in health outcomes, and disparities in terms of promotion rates. So, figuring out how we dismantle, deconstruct things that are inequitable and figuring out how we provide the resources and tools and support structures that are necessary to create equity. So yes, there’s been an evolution. I think we’re at this very pivotal moment because of the things that happen in 2020 particularly around social unrest. We’ve probably been or are now at a more open opportunity to really accelerate change around diversity, equity, inclusion, particularly discussions about racism and what racism has done and continues to do to marginalize communities in the United States of America. So, I’m excited about where we are, and I actually think that we are at a different point than we have ever been. And I do see more and more organizations hiring diversity and inclusion leaders, hiring health equity leaders, forming the councils as you say both diversity councils, health equity councils, inclusion councils, and also developing employee led resource groups. So, I think we’re at an exciting and opportunistic moment to really accelerate and make this a part of the fabric of who we are. I mean, our country is continuing to diversify and at some point we’ll be majority minority. And so, we have got to create organizations that reflect who we are as a country and community.

Rolf: So, the pandemic has become one of those, kind of historic moments. It’s going to be forever embedded in our collective memory, 2020 forever reference, maybe as the moment that the world change in ways that, you know, we don’t yet fully understand. And you mentioned, previously, that you feel like due to the pandemic, some uncomfortable subjects are now less taboo. And I guess that kind of goes hand in hand with the growth of emphasis and focus on equity, diversity inclusion within organizations, also these uncomfortable subjects becoming less taboo. So, what are some of the subjects you think have become less taboo and are now moving into more into the mainstream and then getting discussed more?

Dwayne: The obvious is race and racism, a conversation that many people shied away from previously but particularly when we talk about the killing of black people systemically in our country. Many organizations are starting to have open dialogue with their employees when the events like this take place. So that, you know, we’re not just seeing our employees as people who show up to work and leave the rest of their life and their emotions at the door, but we’re understanding that these major atrocities impact a person holistically. And so, the organization has some responsibility in understanding how their employees might be impacted. And so they’re focusing on the wellness, the health of their employees. And so, it gives us the opportunity to talk about things like that, how your health and wellbeing is impacted if you are a person who is a part of the communities that have been targeted or you’re a person who, just in general, doesn’t believe that the things that are happening to people should be happening and really aren’t fair. So, companies, again, I think, are now taking a much more holistic approach and allowing those conversations to occur, whereas previously they would have tried to steer employees away from those types of topics. But the only way we’re going to address these things is to actually talk about them and not to pretend that they don’t exist, but to understand that if you’re going to make change, you actually have to face the issue and move through it, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable the conversation might be. But you know, the work that we do is to help organizations understand that you can have these conversations in a very respectful manner that allows people to express themselves, but also demonstrate empathy, which ultimately is what will drive people forward in changing their minds, attitudes and behaviors.

Rolf: So that’s kind of overcoming this tendency that we’ve seen for many, many years, where we’re not talking about these things, these subjects like structural racism, for example, and then by not talking about it, those circumstances just normalize. So, to de-normalize, you’ve got to have the conversations.

Dwayne: That’s right, to me, in some ways it’s as simple as, think about if you have an issue with your family member or have an issue with your spouse or child, if you simply ignore those issues, at some point, it rears its ugly head in some sort of behavior because it never got resolved. Right? And so, if you ignore it, then ultimately, it’s going to come back to bite you. And we have been ignoring the conversation of racism for over 400 years. We’ve been doing the same thing over and over hoping for a different result. It never made sense. So, now we have an opportunity to do something different, to face our fears, to understand that we all inherently have value and worth as human beings and that, ultimately is what it is about. And so, in order to honor that we have to take on these systems and structures and policies that create inequity, create oppression.

Rolf: Could you share some examples of where you’ve worked with organizations, and you’ve seen change take place?

Dwayne: Yeah, that’s probably one of the most rewarding parts of the work that I do. We worked with a large multi-hospital health system. They have probably over 80 hospitals and we worked with their senior most executive leadership team and then a group of identified up and comers that will lead the system in the future. So, about a group of 11. We took them through one of our leadership developments programs that focuses on anti-racism, social justice and health inequity all wrapped around the concept of inclusive leadership. So, what happens is we have several workshops focused on the topics then in the in-between, they actually are working with one of our inclusive leadership executive coaches to help them debrief, understand and talk through the things that they heard, the feelings that they may have had as a result and with this particular group it was predominantly white with, I think maybe three minorities out of 11 maybe 50% women. But the group itself, wasn’t extremely diverse at the top of the organization. So, it meant that we had to have some conversations about things that, perhaps they just had no awareness of, which also meant then that people who were in these underrepresented minority groups spoke their truth. They shared what their life experience was about. We go to a space of vulnerability. We create psychological safety when we’re working with these groups and it becomes this really emotional experience that oftentimes will open people up to empathy. And so, at the end of our time together with them, what we really brought it back around to was, number one, what is your why? Usually, the why, for people is they want to leave a better world for their children, their grandchildren and as leaders of a multi-billion-dollar healthcare system, they feel responsible to do something different. And the change that we saw with them at the end of this was one leader actually standing up and saying, now that we know what we know, we have an obligation to do something different. We can’t just stand idly by. We have to transform our organization because it is a part of who we are. It is part of our mission. And so, they are now on the journey to doing that. And that was the kickoff of their journey, really working with that leadership team.

Rolf: That’s a lovely quote. “Now that we know what we know.” What other kinds of feedback have you had from people you’ve worked with, who found themselves changing their perspectives? What kind of things did people share with you?

Dwayne: I do a lot of speaking around the country and then often get feedback surveys afterwards and quotes. And oftentimes people learn something new either about systemic racism or about, you know, the statistics around health disparities. The fact that there are 83,000 black and brown lives that are lost each year to health disparities in the United States. The fact that there’s $57.5 billion annually are lost due to the direct impact of health disparities. So, things like that really begin to open up people’s minds. And then, when we start to talk about racism, non-racist and anti-racist, I think people are clamoring for this type of information. So, oftentimes people will be pretty moved in these conversations because it’s the first time that they have perhaps heard some of this. And then, it becomes a first time for them to ask questions and share again, in a safe environment. So, I like to think that that is there one of their awakening moments as we, as I go through these types of workshops, training, speaking engagements. So, usually we have people who are just very thankful for the experience because it sets them on their journey.

Rolf: So, in closing, couple of things I’d like to ask you to share with us. First of all, your organization, do you have resources that anybody can access to work with these kinds of ideas and concepts?

Dwayne: Yeah, so the way that our resources are set up are through the Just Help Collective Village. So if companies or individuals want to become members of the, Just Help Collect Village, they can do that and have access to a lot of resources, subject matter experts, different types of organizations. We also have a newsletter that I write for our [30:50 inaudible] column, and then we share experiences of our client organizations. And so people can join our newsletter. And all of this by the way can be accessed through our website, which is That’s So any of the things that I just mentioned can be accessed there. We also are on social media, so Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and I actually do some LinkedIn live series called Chatsworth Achieve: A Belonging Dialogue. So, I invite CEOs of organizations or C-suite leaders of organizations to talk about these very issues. And if you follow me on LinkedIn or follow, Just Help Collective on LinkedIn, you’ll be able to see when I go live with these folks and I encourage anyone in your audience to join those conversations.

Rolf: That’s great, and you also have a podcast, right?

Dwayne: Yes. I have a podcast with a fellow CEO that works in health equity. Her name is Dr. Maria Hernandez and our podcast is called Centering Health Equity. And the goal is to get folks who are out in the trenches, who are leading organizations, leading these transformational changes down to, you know, working on the actual process and policy changes that are happening so that we can stay informed and that we can have a space for us to talk and share and grow with one another in a podcast format.

Rolf: So, finally, a call to action for our listeners.

Dwayne: Yeah. So, the call to action is number one, if you haven’t started your journey towards anti-racism, please move through any level of discomfort you might have. We need everybody to be involved in the movement towards ending systemic racism, and it will require many people, many organizations, much bravery to take on this issue, but it is well overdue. And by tackling this issue, not only will these marginalized communities be impacted and uplifted, but we all will be in a better place. Get involved where you can so that we can really start to impact health equity, educational equity, economic equity by addressing the systemic racism.

Rolf: Wonderful, really, really, inspiring call to action. So Dwayne, thank you so much for joining us today on Health Disparities Podcast – really enjoyed the discussion.

Dwayne: Rolf, I’d really like to thank you, number one, for the work that you do and the enlightenment that you bring through your podcast. Thank you so much for having me on as a guest.

Rolf: And we will share the link that you mentioned in the notes to the podcast on our website. So if anybody wants to just check back, we’ll link to those resources. Thanks everyone for listening to this episode of the Health Disparities Podcast. Remember to subscribe and we will see you next time.

(End of recording)

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