HealthRacial Equity

Health Net of West Michigan: Begin at the beginning


Whether the experience involves an individual, organization or community, lasting transformation takes place from the inside out. For the next several weeks, we’re pulling lessons from our new Racial Equity Spotlight series. This set of three publications gives an insider’s view to a wide variety of WKKF grantee partners who are committed to transforming their internal practices and ways of being to strengthen their work in support of children and families.

In Brief

Over the past nine years, Health Net of West Michigan has been a crucial link to health care and social services, prioritizing low-income individuals. Through case management, system navigation, transportation and outreach, the organization collaborates closely with local partners to enhance community health and wellness, ensuring access to essential resources for healthier lives.

Health Net started in 2014 as a merger between two nonprofit programs and organizations. Almost immediately, the lack of diversity became apparent. White male executives from various local health and mental health systems dominated the board, with staff also primarily identifying as white. The new organization conducted a standard equity assessment and quickly identified the need for a way to talk about health equity. But they recognized that individual analyses of historical power and social structures could only get them so far. With the organization just barely starting out, it seemed like racial equity would have to take a back seat.

Still, the equity team refused to slow down. In 2018, the team released an “equity strategic plan,” calling for Health Net to name specific goals for weaving principles of equity and inclusion throughout all aspects of the organization.

Why It Matters

The equity team’s clarion call finally made the connection between staff equity education and organizational goals. Health Net built equity-focused training into its onboarding curriculum, and there was a newly established dedicated focus on diversifying its workforce and board of directors. Staff turnover – a fact of life, especially in health care – no longer means the loss of institutional progress, but rather allows for another step in the institution’s journey. The equity strategic plan, noted executive director Maureen Kirkwood, wasn’t one checkbox in a series of unrelated lists:

“It created an opportunity to really think about how equity is connected to everything we do.” 

Racial equity processes can, especially in heavily white communities, often stop at education and engagement without moving an organization forward into action and policy. Health Net’s equity team shifted the focus to include organizational and cultural change, while still advocating for and allowing for individual healing and growth.

The Opportunity

If your organization is just starting out, you might feel like racial equity is a lot to handle this early in your growth, with setting intentional policies, practices and approaches. In fact, keeping racial equity at the heart of what your organization does can help build your strength and capacities right out of the gate. Read more on how organizations like Health Net were able to unapologetically put equity front and center.

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