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From Awareness to Action: A Commitment to An Anti-Racist Cancer Center

Read Time: 4 minutes

Brad Cairns, PhD | Kola Okuyemi, MD
Brad Cairns, PhD | Kola Okuyemi, MD

In response to a national reckoning on racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) made a major commitment to create meaningful changes that would result in a more just, equitable, and inclusive environment. The commitment was direct: to become an anti-racist cancer institute.

“We were very intentional in describing our goal with the term ‘anti-racist’ cancer center,” says Kola Okuyemi, MD. “Anti-racist means taking action to oppose injustice and deliberately remove barriers rooted in systemic racism. At HCI, this means creating a culture where each of us actively works to eliminate racism that is pervasive in our society.”

Okuyemi was asked to co-chair HCI’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Commission, convened in July 2020. He was charged to oversee recommendations that support the creation of an anti-racist, equitable, diverse, and inclusive culture at HCI. Okuyemi worked alongside Commission co-chair Brad Cairns, PhD, to lead a group that included laboratory researchers, clinicians, trainees, community engagement representatives, and administrative staff—reflecting the diverse composition of HCI.

“The Commission recognized that HCI has strived to create a positive, human-centered culture,” says Cairns. “Yet blatant acts of racism in our country led to conversations within our community that made it clear good intentions are not good enough. The work of the Commission reflects a turning point for HCI—one where we have zero tolerance for racism or the systems that support racism.”

The Commission began by reviewing written comments and suggestions submitted by staff, as well as feedback gathered in listening sessions. In response to common themes from staff and other priority areas identified by the Commission, they identified six categories:

  • Clinical Policies: To create clinical policies on par with protections patients already have that protect employees from discrimination by patients.
  • Education, Training, and Awareness: To educate, train, and raise awareness of equity, diversity, and inclusion for the HCI community with a zero-tolerance for racism.
  • Hiring and Retention Practices: To identify and recommend best practices in hiring and retention in the HCI community and to achieve a diverse faculty and staff that values and celebrates equity, diversity, and inclusion.
  • Safety and Refuge: To provide members of the HCI community who face acts of racism or other discriminatory mistreatment a structure for safe reporting, support, and advocacy.
  • Trainee Concerns: To recommend practices that address trainee concerns regarding transparency, accountability, and safety, and advance HCI’s mission to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion within our community.
  • Vision, Definitions, and Culture: To develop a shared and consistent definition of equity, diversity, and inclusion within the context of HCI’s mission and vision and further educate and empower each member of the HCI community regarding our dedicated commitment toward equity, diversity, and inclusion.

After more than six months of rigorous effort, the Commission presented recommendations to HCI leadership. HCI leaders then took responsibility for carrying forward and implementing priorities identified by the Commission.

Next, HCI leaders held a virtual town hall, where the Commission co-chairs shared the recommendations with the HCI community. More than 400 faculty, staff, and students attended this virtual event.

The work by the Commission is just the beginning. Many of the recommendations are now being implemented at HCI. This includes expanding the HCI office of equity, diversity, and inclusion, which Okuyemi has been appointed to lead as executive director. Efforts are also being coordinated across the University of Utah campus, including with the School of Medicine and University Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion office.

“At HCI, we are familiar with tackling major and complex challenges, like cancer. We will similarly dedicate ourselves to tackling racism. Meaningful action is long overdue. We will fall short of our vision to deliver a cancer-free frontier if we do not succeed in our efforts to achieve equity, diversity, and inclusion at HCI,” says Mary Beckerle, PhD, HCI CEO.

Media Contact

Heather Simonsen
Public Affairs Senior Manager
Huntsman Cancer Institute
801 581-3194

About Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah

Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah is the National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center for Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming. With a legacy of innovative cancer research, groundbreaking discoveries, and world-class patient care, we are transforming the way cancer is understood, prevented, diagnosed, treated, and survived. Huntsman Cancer Institute focuses on delivering the highest standard of care and the most advanced treatments, ensuring world-class cancer care is available to all communities in the area we serve. We have more than 300 open clinical trials and 250 research teams studying cancer at any given time. More genes for inherited cancers have been discovered at Huntsman Cancer Institute than at any other cancer center. Our scientists are world-renowned for understanding how cancer begins and using that knowledge to develop innovative approaches to treat each patient’s unique disease. Huntsman Cancer Institute was founded by Jon M. and Karen Huntsman.

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