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Vox Voice Podcast: Episode 7 - Nikki McGruder

Nikki McGruder is responsible for advancing MU Health Care's efforts to encourage diversity

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Nikki McGruder, MU Health Care's Director of Diversity, was a finalist for the Progress in Social Justice Award.

Nikki McGruder, Director of Diversity at MU Health Care, is using her new position to advance MU Health Care's efforts on diversity. McGruder has worked to improve Columbia's community on diversity for years. Now, she wants to make sure people are bias-aware and create an inclusive workspace. Hear about McGruder's journey working from a corporate background to nonprofit in this eighth episode of Vox Voice. 

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Episode Transcript

Grace Glander, Vox Digital Editor, 0:52: All right, well, thank you Nikki for joining us. You're the MU Health Care's Director of Diversity. And so with the first question, where are you from and how did you come to Columbia?

Nikki McGruder, 1:05: I'm from Peoria, Illinois. But the bulk of my childhood, I grew up in Hannibal, Missouri. But my family moved here in the summer of 1989. I did my undergrad at Columbia College. I always joke with students especially, when I first graduated high school, I went to MU. But my major was partying.

1:29: (Both Laughing)

GG, 1:31: How long were you at MU?

NM, 1:34: About two years.

GG, 1:36: Did you like it here?

NM, 1:37: Mmhmm, a little too much.

GG, 1:42: Yeah, I like it too. So speaking of your career, you started as a recruiter at Edward Jones Investments. But your career path shifted to diversity and inclusion work. And so was this a path you always envisioned for yourself?

NM, 1:54: Never. (Laughs) I don't know that I ever thought that this would be where I would end up. But it's interesting because I had a business degree, and I remember after graduating with my undergraduate degree, I was like: “I have no idea what I'm about to do with this very broad degree where I could go in any number of ways.” So I ended up enrolling immediately into graduate school. But ended up finding an opportunity with Edward Jones Investments while I was in grad school pursuing my MBA. And ended up going to Edward Jones, where they had a program for recent minority college graduates so that we could explore different aspects of the financial services industry over an 18-month timeframe. So I ended up at Edward Jones. I was licensed as a securities adviser. I did a little bit of everything at Edward Jones, but never in a million years would I have thought that career trajectory would end up with being in diversity and inclusion.

GG, 3:13: Okay, so now, as Director of Diversity at MU Health Care that was created this summer, and why do you think that that job was created now?

NM, 3:23: Well, what people don't realize, and I really think it's important to understand, is MU Health Care didn't just on a whim decide “we need to have a diversity, equity and inclusion director.” And I think that's important in light of the environment that we're in. This, over the summer, we were at a heightened awareness of race relations in our country. And several organizations were stepping up doing things, making plans, making moves and understanding the importance of having resources dedicated to developing inclusive spaces.

Fun fact is that I had been talking with leaders at MU Health Care since early, oh goodness, 2019. Because I was the keynote for an event with the chamber, MU Health Care was the sponsor of that event. They talked and they heard me talk and then we met up afterwards, and I was like, “Oh, my goodness, like I really want to work with them.” I'm thinking I would love for MU Health Care to be a corporate partner of the institute.

And even my work’s president was in the same meeting across the room, and she was listening to the leader. His name is Peter Collins. Peter was talking about the work that they were doing in the diversity and inclusion space at MU Health Care. And we were very impressed, and we were like, “Yes, like he's saying all the right things, we need to work with them.”

And so, I met up with them fully expecting to woo MU Health Care into being a corporate partner, and Peter wanted to meet and his thoughts were, “how great would it be to get you to work for MU Health Care?” And so we were meeting up, definitely wanting to work together, but we had different ideas in mind.

So we had been in conversation for a long time, just figuring out how to work best together. I was also talking to my leadership, because they were my family, and they still are. And I'm like, “So MU Health Care may, one day, want someone to lead efforts in diversity and inclusion.” And because they were family, and we had done such great work together for five and a half years, I wanted them to know every conversation that I was having that could woo me away. Right? So everybody was in the know of this could potentially happen.

It just so happened that the timing was just right, and the timing was necessary this summer to figure it out and make it happen. Versus, you know, the conversations and the planning were occurring, but it was time to move. And so here we are.

GG, 6:26: Yeah, I'm glad it worked out that way. Well, then, as director of diversity at MU health care, what do your responsibilities entail?

NM, 6:33: You know, the beautiful thing about being the first in a position is that you kind of plan it out like I feel like we're driving the train a bit, we're laying the track at the same time. We know what we're after, and now we're just trying to figure out how to get there. The ultimate goal is to create an environment of inclusivity where every human being, and I say this in every space that I'm in. Like I don't want any human being to walk into a space like this is, you know, especially, you know, when we're talking about a workplace that's serving a community that they want to mirror, right? You want every human being to feel like they have a place and belong.

So the work that I'm doing is that first month specifically was just having conversations, like meeting different leaders, talking with our employee resource group leaders and figuring out what were their dreams? What were their hopes? What were the things that were concerning to them? And kind of getting an idea for what things could look like. So, yeah, “Nikki has her plan,” but I wanted it to be our plan. Right? So getting input from everyone on the best way to move things forward.

One of my first duties, if you will, being just a couple of months old here, was really looking at strategic planning times. So, looking at our strategic plan, and helping leadership understand that everything we do, I might lead diversity equity inclusion at MU Health Care, but diversity, equity and inclusion is everybody's responsibility, right? So looking at how we should start looking at even the simplest things, the everyday things, through an equity lens. So how can we make sure that if we're talking about patient care, we're always keeping equity top of mind?

We're talking about equality and safety. We're keeping equity top of mind. We're creating an inclusive workspace where we're not just saying we're after more women, we're after more people of color and more culture and ethnicities. But then we haven't created a space where they could be their authentic selves in it. So are they coming in on board? And we're saying: “Welcome! You're welcome here as long as you act just like I do, and you think just like I do!” That's definitely not what we wanna do. We wanna raise awareness around bias and understanding that we all have it.

So even and changing language from we wanna be bias free, to we want to be bias-aware. I would love to be bias free, but the reality is I'm an adult, I'm well into my adulthood, and we have been socialized over the course of our entire lives. We have lived experiences, things we've heard, things we've seen that have us sitting here today as biased individuals. Once I make my unconscious bias now aware, because I've done the assessments, I realized that this is something that is impacting what I think, what I say, what I do. It is an intentional practice every day to mitigate that.

So I see something there might be a thought that pops into my head. But because now I'm aware that this is an area that I suffered, I am consciously and intentionally doing the work necessary to change it. So I don't know that I'll ever be free from it, but I'm aware of it and I know that I don't want to operate in any bias that could potentially be doing harm to another human being. So I'm doing my best everyday to change my thinking, change my actions, change my activities and all of that. And so even those things in this workspace are things that we're working on.

GG, 10:48: I like that, the part about being aware, I feel like that's important for people to realize. Okay. Well, then, with the health care, specifically, how does diversity inclusion play a part in that?

NM, 11:01: Because we are providing a service, we're providing care to human beings from all walks of life. I think especially being an academic medical institution, like we're bringing in talented students everywhere, faculty, employees from all over the world, it would behoove us to be culturally competent so that we can provide an environment that they're not trying to run away from, right? Like we're having conversations and I love the culture here, so we're having conversations around providing the best patient care. You know, we can't hit everyone's preferences, mind you, but asking like you have these options of lotions, like: “Do you have oily skin? Do you have drier skin?”

I would have been like, “Oh my goodness, you people are amazing!” So it's just like all of the things that we can do to recognize all of the beauty in our differences, and not make people feel othered because of them, and start to normalize humanity and all of our different gifts and talents and that we bring to the table.

For instance, today: and I want to give a shout out to a School of Medicine students for saying “Hey, you know, today, Wednesday, October 21st, is International Pronouns Day.” So they talked with us about it for the last couple of weeks about recognizing today as International Pronouns Day and the work that we could do to just normalize pronouns. I was having conversations with how we take patients in, like asking them, “What are your pronouns?” so that we can just start to address people how they want to be addressed. Doing things like even in our Zooms and our email signatures, making sure that it's clear that these are my pronouns, she/her/hers.

So when you're addressing me or you're referring to me in communications, we’re in meetings together and you're just when you're doing it in the right way. We're not othering anyone because it just becomes normal. It's normalized in our culture, and so we're working on those things. The students spearheaded an effort to get badge buddies so everyone can put their pronouns right there on their badges. So as we're creating this environment of inclusivity, we're making it easier to do so.

Those are, you know, some of the things that I'm really proud of. With leadership at MU Health Care, I can tell you, even talking with the CEO, he was like, “Coming on board, Nikki, I just want you to push us.” Like, “push us?” Obviously, I'm gonna do it gently, but there will be nudges, and we will get there. We didn't get here overnight to this place, where when you think about race relations, talking about LGBTQ rights. So it's not going to be overnight that we get to a place of full inclusivity. But there's a willingness at MU Health Care to do the hard work, to a point where one day it won't be hard work, and we won't even have to reference it that way because it's just a part of who we are and the way we do things.

GG, 14:59: Yeah, that's awesome. Well then, what are the most difficult hurdles you faced in this role so far?

NM, 15:06: I wouldn't say any hurdles other than a global pandemic. So that's something that we're up against. At the height of the pandemic, it was a challenge for sure, because it was new. No one has been here before. So trying to figure out how we handle this, what we do and just creating a space, also, to take care of our healthcare employees. So I'm watching all of this take place, and leaders rallied together and just trying to figure it out. So that's one.

Another thing that has come up, so we're really working on figuring out how to navigate that and what that's going to mean for us would be the executive order that our president has mandated that says that there's no more race and safe space trainings for federal contractors. When it first came out, we had no direction. The Department of Justice sent out some clarification on some terms that were in the executive order probably a couple of weeks later, so that provided a little more direction. But initially it was like, oh my goodness, what are we gonna do with the panic that ensues. And wondering if that means that we're not going to be able to move forward with this very important work.

The Department of Justice did give us some frequently asked questions, if you will, and some more discussion — more direction rather as to what we could and could not do. But one of the things was, on the questions, was “Would we have to stop implicit bias training?” And I had just rolled out opportunities for employees to participate in implicit bias training and it does not. It does not say that we have to stop it. It is not prohibited as long as our goal with the training is to inform, to foster discussion, to raise awareness. And it's not about accusing anyone of being a certain way just because they were born a certain way.

So he talked about race and sex, stereotyping and scapegoating. Well, any effective trainer does not do training in this space like that. So for that reason, I'm like, “Oh, okay, well, we'll be okay. We're gonna be okay, because that is definitely not the goal when we're talking about this work,” not when I'm doing it anyway. Obviously it's disheartening, I think, initially I spent some time just in silence like my family didn't even know. Like “what is going on?” But it was like, “Oh, my goodness, like this can't be 2020.”

But at the same time, I think people should understand he is not alone in his thinking, and he just is in a position of power to do something about it. But I think it's definitely a viewpoint that we have to continue to keep top of mind and have a willingness to have dialogue about it, because there are those that are so opposed to this work for the very reasons outlined in the executive order. And we need to have to be able to talk through that and why that's a challenge.

So, you know, obstacle, but at the end of the day, the work still has to continue.

GG, 19:22: Okay, well, as Director of Diversity, you regularly hear stories of racism and sexism in the workplace. Do your personal identities help you in this work or make this work more challenging?

NM, 19:32: First and foremost, I am a Black woman. So, I talked about my lived experiences and personal experiences in corporate America, and the things that I wish I would have known prior to going to like my first corporate job. So, I wish someone would have told me about microaggressions. I wish someone would have told me about bias. I wish I would have known how Black women are perceived. There's so many things that I wish I would have known as a young professional entering the workforce for the first time.

Instead, I was armed with a strong parental force. And so my mom always telling me “I could do, I could be.” I'm going into it like that. I'm very confident. You know, I'm speaking up in meetings and not realizing that my strength, my confidence was viewed as, ugh, almost. It was not perceived very well, right? So there's the persona of the angry Black woman. I can remember being told from leaders that I'm too matter of fact in my tone. What some might see as a benefit, are being told by leaders that they're glad I'm there because I don't talk “Black,” and I'll be able to teach other Black people not to talk “Black.”

So there was a period of time where I felt the need to assimilate, and I was even told by a mentor if I wanted to excel in my career, I was going to have to straighten my hair. And so I did that for the longest time. And even in starting this work in this community six years ago, I straightened my hair and because I was going to be the regional manager at the time of diversity inclusion.

But I was going to be going into banks, and talking with CEOs and different businesses, and about the support of the organization and doing this work. And I felt the need to assimilate. So it's part “my hair is gonna be a barrier. I don't want that to get in the way. I'm gonna change it.” But it was part “I don't want to be perceived a certain way, so I'm gonna change it.” Either way it goes, it was bad, right?

So I think about all of the accommodations that I hadn’t made in order to move things forward. But now I've been where I remember, after about two years of doing this work in this community, I was like, “Look, I'm tired of straightening my hair. I have proven myself. You know what I'm capable of. You know, I'm a professional woman at this point. You see now that I am no different. And I'm gonna be me.” And I quit assimilating and made sure that I was not, I was practicing what I was preaching, right? And so if my hair was gonna be a problem, it wasn't gonna be a problem for me. And then let's talk about why you think the way I wear my hair is a problem for you.

And so we started to have these discussions. When I think about help or hindrance, I don't acknowledge a hindrance anymore, but I cannot say that I haven't in the past. And I am still very cognizant of the need for white allies. I'm very cognizant of the fact that there are still some spaces where I need a sponsor, right? Someone to say “Hey, but have you thought about Nikki McGruder?” I do acknowledge the fact that my work has spoken for me. So now that we've broken down the walls of all the preconceived notions that you had about me as a Black woman, we’ve blown those out of the water and you see what I'm capable of, that I'm a professional and I do great work. Then I think that now speaks for itself.

But it was not always that way. So that is why this work is so important to me, because now that I'm living in my authenticity, I want others to be able to do the same, whether it be because they're Black like me or any other person of color, whether they love differently or not at all. However one expresses themselves, I want them to be in an environment where they can talk about their disability without shame or being fearful that they won't get opportunities.

That's why this work is so important to me, because I could tell you those days when I was acting all day were so tiresome. Like I would come home and I would be so tired, because I hadn't been who I was all day, in essence, I was on stage from 9 to 5, or 8 to 4, whatever it was and couldn't be who I was until after. So we have to stop. No one wants to act anymore. Like people want to just be who they are and we should be creating the space to allow that.

GG, 25:03: Well, going off of that, and then being a mother, how will you be talking to your kids about diversity and inclusion?

NM, 25:08: Oh my goodness, my kids are talking about it all the time. So I have four kids, but I have two younger ones at home. And so I have a seven, she'll be eight and she's doing a countdown. She's gonna be eight on November 1st. And I have a 12 year old, but this has been their life.

So we're always having conversations about diversity, inclusion. We're always talking about, like my daughter, my 12-year-old, she will read anyone that tells her that she shouldn't do this and that because she's a girl, or that she should pick this because it's a girl's color. Like she will get you together really quickly because that is, that does not exist. And that is gender stereotyping. And she has a whole spiel.

But this is what they live. So this is what they have been exposed to. They've been in protests with me, they’re in meetings, they've seen me speak. This is their life. So they can talk to you about the importance of this work almost as well as I can. I’m proud of that fact. I'm proud of my little activists.

GG, 26:24: That’s awesome, I love that they’re involved and aware too. I was gonna go back to this one because I thought it could be fun. Oh, so how do you practice self care when working with the racism and sexism that you have to deal with every day?

NM, 26:43: Yeah. My family and friends would say I'm not good at it. And I tend to agree most of the time. So it's a constant struggle. I tell people all the time: “You need to really practice self care. You need to really practice self care,” and then I don't do the best. But what I can do, I tell you, I do pull away from social media at times. Just taking breaks so like completely taking it off of my phone. So, I'm not inclined to just check it that way. So I do that for myself.

When I can get a good book, I love that. Getting in a book that has nothing to do about social justice, equity, race, you know of the things. When I could do that, finding a nice podcast and really, you know, just family nights, like I love just hanging out with the family and finding a day when we can just binge watch something, and just spend time on the couch, or comfort food. But yeah, you know, I haven't been the best at it, but I do understand its importance and I do have a goal to do that.

GG, 28:04: All right. Well, last question. If you could give Columbia residents advice, what would it be?

NM, 28:11: I think one thing would be to recognize that just because it's important to you, or it's been your experience, doesn't mean that it's everyone's experience. And those that have had experiences that are different than you, have beliefs different than you, things that are important to you that are different to you, then that does not make them the bad one and you a good one, or vice-versa. We can all have our truth.

And I think recognize that there are some that we're not going to mesh with because our values are so different. And that's okay. But we don't have to try to silence or diminish anyone else because they live differently or think differently. That's why I tell people all the time I can absolutely sit across from someone who I know does not see me as their equal, as long as they have a willingness to hear me, and I will do the same for them.

Now, if there's a commitment to misunderstanding me, then there's no need. I'm not going to engage with anyone with a commitment, like they're committed more to their beliefs and their misunderstanding than hearing me, then there's no need to converse. But, you know, I can if there is a willingness to hear. But I would just encourage people to be better humans.

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