Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Belonging


In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we talked with Tessie Guillermo, Chair of the Board of Stewardship Trustees of CommonSpirit Health, about this federal heritage month. She spoke of its importance, what it means to CommonSpirit, and what it means to her.

Why is it important for CommonSpirit to recognize various heritage months?
There are several reasons. Our values and mission explicitly speak to advancing social justice, inclusion and providing service to all people. As the largest Catholic health system in the U.S., we can proclaim our identity as being broadly inclusive of people of all backgrounds. One way to do this is by celebrating the heritage and histories of our diverse workforce, patients and communities. As anchor institutions in the communities we serve, we have to hold ourselves up as respectful of diverse cultures ‒ both new and long-standing ‒ and proactively embrace opportunities to do so.

Why is this important to you?
I’m a child of immigrant parents from the Philippines who felt they had to “assimilate” – or downplay their own cultural heritage – in order to fully be accepted. I have always had a heightened need to acknowledge and celebrate the rich contributions of people who bring varied perspectives, practices and histories to our society.

I began my professional career in health advocacy in the mid-1970s at a community health center serving primarily low-income, monolingual Asian American patients in Oakland, CA. At that time, language and cultural access to health services were even greater challenges and barriers than they are today.

A huge part of our success in expanding linguistic and culturally competent services was a strong collaboration with health providers and advocates serving African American, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American and other vulnerable communities. Data collection at the time didn’t capture or prioritize racial and ethnic breakdowns, immigration status, health behaviors or risk factors leading to major causes of death and disability among these populations. What is now commonly referred to as “social determinants of health” were the issues we were attuned to at the community health level. That included our understanding of the histories, cultural differences and socioeconomic conditions that created barriers to improving health care for all.

Many of us worked diligently for more than a decade to pass the federal Disadvantaged Minority Health Improvement Act of 1990, which recognized disparities in health services, coverage, data and health professions development. It is an example of how critical it is to recognize and document barriers and challenges to achieving equity; and to understand that overcoming those barriers is a long-term effort that we can’t do alone.

Furthermore, because the U.S. is increasingly diverse, it is important to acknowledge, in a celebratory way, the contributions made to the history of the U.S. by people from all over the world.

Why should heritage months be celebrated by employees?
In the communities we serve we are highly visible anchor institutions. In many of these communities, we are the largest employer and philanthropic presence. That means we often interact with the full range of diversity represented in the local population. So, to be true to our mission of making the healing presence of God known in our world, our workforce must both reflect and internalize the diversity that exists around us.

For example, we know Asian Americans make up 14.9% of the California population, with the largest concentrations in Los Angeles, San Francisco/San Mateo, Sacramento, and the Central Valley. These are areas where CommonSpirit has a major market presence. It is important for CommonSpirit to reflect that demographic in our workforce if we are to be culturally competent providers to the Asian American population in those regions and effectively improve their health and well-being. In other areas of the country where a range of diversity is evident, our role in achieving healthy communities requires us to be vigilant about reflecting that diversity in all aspects of our presence.

What special message do you have for caregivers?
The disparate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on African American, Latinx and Native American communities has become a heartbreaking documentation of the lack of attention to the determinants of health for these populations. While COVID-19 has shined a bright spotlight on inequities in health status among vulnerable populations, it is not news to those of us who have worked with and cared for patients with diverse backgrounds. I hear from many sources that caregivers throughout CommonSpirit are working as a fully integrated and collaborative team to rise to the challenge of the times. You have demonstrated to local communities and the nation the compassion, dedication, courage and excellence embodied in our commitment to equitably care for our patients of all backgrounds. I’m so proud to be associated with all of you – it motivates me to work even harder in my governance role to assure CommonSpirit’s lasting success.

Do you have some closing thoughts for us?
It is exciting for CommonSpirit to launch its heritage celebrations. Given our reach, it is conceivable that we could organically be inclusive of all, with no need to make a special effort to embrace the diversity all around us. It is extremely rewarding to know that instead, we will be a national leader in recognizing the strength of that diversity, and the history and heritage that every one of our employees brings to our mission each day.

Tessie Guillermo served as the Chair of the Dignity Health Board of Directors and is the past president and CEO of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, a national health policy and advocacy organization focused on health disparities. She is also the past President and CEO for ZeroDivide, a foundation in San Francisco that invests in community enterprises.