MD Anderson 2020 Interview Project
Chapter 05:  Leadership Following The Death of George Floyd, Part 1


Chapter 05: Leadership Following The Death of George Floyd, Part 1



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Mr. Coffee addresses the institution’s actions following the death of George Floyd. He talks about a program he conducted title"Racism is as American as Apple Pie". Mr. Coffee mentions how the institution includes diversity and inclusion as part of cultural competencies reflected through the various initiatives.

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed., Oral History Interview, June 30, 2021


Nina Nevill

It sounds like we are certainly on the same page, at least about the systemic and institutional levels that, unfortunately, all of this permeates and we cannot boil down to individual actions, or practices, or policies, even, for the most part. Regarding this past year, we have seen and I’ll say the visibility of an increase in racial violence, not necessarily an actual increase in racial violence but I think that media, social media, and things like that, have absolutely played a part in conversations about race that have occurred both in the private sphere, but also in workplaces as well. I’d like to know a little bit more about from your perspective how MD Anderson handled these conversations or addressed some of these issues. We can talk specifically about the murder of George Floyd if you like. I think I’ll stop there for now and can ask some more questions later but that’s a big enough of a question.

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed.

I think it’s a relevant question. Because of COVID-19 and people being sequestered in home, when Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, because that’s the culprit, when Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, I got a call from people who know that I do this work and asked what was going to be our institution response? And I had a conversation with some of our leaders and our institution did a very quickly have a very public forum led by Dr. Pistons who talked about the horror of the event, and he allowed Dr. Larry Perkins, Mr. Tadd Pullin, and Dr. Welela Tereffe to talk about the horrors of how they felt, regardless of their demographics, although Tadd happens to be a white male, and he has also talked about his sexual orientation publicly. And Welela talked about the country she came from and the experiences that she’s had, and Dr. Larry Perkins talked about it. So, our institution very quickly, very quickly had a response that was organized, coordinated, and united as a front to address and start building awareness and putting in place programs to build awareness. For instance, I know that the very first program I did was June the 15th. Now, Mr. Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin May the 25th of 2020. I was reached out to and asked to do a program and I said as soon as I could do was June the 15th, and the program was called “Racism is as American as Apple Pie.”

Nina Nevill

That’s a great title.

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed.

Right. And I started by talking about the first original sin was the subjugation of the Native Americans, and then, built that to talk about, certainly, many people are familiar with the condition of servitude for Blacks, to some degrees. People did not understand that there were something called Indigenous servants. They didn’t know how Italians, Irish, Jewish, Japanese, Chinese, have also been mistreated. Some even forgot about how Muslims have been treated from 9—11 on, how Sikhs have been treated. So, I covered the entire gamut of this discussion and then talked about something simple as cultural humility, which is, be a lifelong learner. The three main steps are, be a lifelong learner and do self-reflection, that’s the first step. The second step is, how do I minimize power differentials where none ought to exist? And the third step is, how do I be an ally? Now, just so you know, the very last program I’m probably going to do for now is tomorrow. I’ve been doing programs ever since last May. And I’ve told some people I’m not available. I’ve had to say no. And of course, they’ve said, “Okay, well, when will you be available?” So, it’s not like when I say, “Well, I’m not available for the next 30 to 40 days,” they’ll say, “Okay, let’s look at your calendar 60 days out.” I’m like, “Okay.”

So, we have had a very coordinated response, and I’ve been very proud of the fact that the leadership has not shied away from creating the forum to build awareness. And there are people that, for whatever reason, there are lies my teacher told when I was in school that I didn’t know that this group had had contributed to society. And so, it’s not what you know, but it’s what you know that ain’t so. And so, we have been able to build this awareness. Now, also our institution has created, we have what we call leadership characteristics, which are part of our competencies, and out of our institutional competencies, every one of them are tied to a person’s job in some way, shape, form, or fashion. And so, the leadership characteristic of inclusion was integrated into our, we at the time, had 17 competencies, and now we have, I want to say we have 21. We’ve added the leadership competency of inclusion, and under that umbrella is the competency of cultural humility, which we just talked about, cultural intelligence, and cultural awareness.

And that’s a part of people’s performance evaluation system so it would say, “How does Nina demonstrate cultural humility? Or how has she in the last year?” And there’s some specific language that says, “This is what demonstrating cultural humility looks like,” and I just talked to you a little bit about growing myself and then doing some lifelong learning. So, “Is what my mom and dad taught me actually true about that group of people? I love them and they love me but maybe they misinformed me. And if they did, let me reflect on that and then think, what am I going to do about it?”

So, we have put that together and then we’ve got in our coaching development, inclusive leadership. So, we’d have taken and integrated into the fiber of this organization, we already had core values that would have addressed it, again, from a caring core value, it says, “Do you treat people with dignity and respect?” That’s always been a part of the institution. Our integrity core value says, “You are accountable for the core values.” Accountable. It’s part of that core value of integrity. And discovery is like, “Are you learning, growing?” But we also have added stewardship and safety. So, we have, our core values help you with treating people with dignity and respect, regardless of—you’re in a multinational, multicultural, multi-ethnic, multilinguistic, multigenerational organization. So, our core values cover that. Our code of conduct says, “Be a good colleague.” And then our service excellence standards also ask us to be courteous, to create a safe environment, and again, the word accountability is the third data point on there before you get to efficiency and innovation. So, we have enough policies and procedures in place. Now again, when Lee is in front of an audience talking about this, the question I ask is, “Is there a gap between what we say and what we do from an accountability standpoint?”

But I would submit to you, I believe—and there’s some bias built into what I’m going to say because I’ve been a part of building the program for the last 14 years, 13 years, but I think we’re better than anybody else in the Texas Medical Center because I know people that are doing different programs in the TMC area. Not everybody wants to touch the third rail of talking about spirituality and healthcare. Who God is and how God serves the person. In addition to that, not everybody is talking about, how do you integrate your lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, pansexual employee into the process so that he or she or they feel that they are treated with the same dignity and respect as an employee? And I know for a fact that we’ve had employees who have come to the institution born, based on the biological binary code, and while they’ve been at MD Anderson, they began the transition to their more authentic self. And we have programs in place to help through our education program like the LGBT or through our Diversity Council, which is a cross-section of about 42 different members with some executive sponsors, including the Diversity Champion Program in which like, if Nina wanted to be a Diversity Champion, there are four classes you’d have to go to and a project you must complete before you are defined as and get a certificate that says you are a diversity champion, so that we know you’ve been exposed to the classes. And again, I was teaching them all, so I know, it was the LGBT Diversity and Inclusion class, it was a Spirituality in Healthcare class, it was one of the Unconscious Bias classes, and if you were a manager, you had to go through Managing Across Differences, and then you had to do a project that was approved by, I think, there’s three people, that said, “Yes this is a good project that’s going to build your awareness about diversity equity and inclusion, but also, it’s going to contribute to the body of knowledge in some reasonable and productive way.”

Nina Nevill

Those initiatives sound like they could be helpful to employees at any and all stages and levels.

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed.

And I think next month, we have our diversity celebration coming up, so each year, in August, we have a—it used to be over in the Alief Park, where there is probably 30 tables and people from across the globe are represented. You can show up in whatever your authentic cultural garb is, you can have some finger foods, some people would order food from their favorite restaurant that represents their culture, and that food would be brought and people can walk by and grab whatever that finger food is. We have presenters that will come up, and some sing, some will talk, some will tell a story, and it’s about building awareness about—like at one time from a negative standpoint, we had Sikh members at the institution who were being mistreated by patients because all they know is, “I see somebody with a turban on, and in my ignorance, I don’t know that this member of a different faith practice than a Muslim, and I really don’t know anything about Muslims either, other than what I saw on CNN or Fox, but I know that I’ve been told that’s the bad guy or the bad girl,” and so, they mistreated some of our staff members and we had a very coordinated response and we did five specific things to address making that staff member—it was actually two, a male and female, both of whom were doctors, but making them realize that they were in a supportive community.

And one of those things we that we do is invite them to the diversity celebration to set up a table so that they can have some representatives from the Sikh community stand at the table and when somebody walks up, there could be a pamphlet there, or there could just be somebody that says, “Well, tell me, who are you and why do you have that turban on? And tell me about the 5 Ks that you, as a Sikh, you have a knife, and you have a comb, what is that all about?” And they could just explain, “It’s not different from those prayer beads you have, or that cross you have, this is a symbol of my faith.” And so, we have done—we are integrating diversity equity and inclusion, not just in our concentrated classes, but in every leadership class there’s a component that talks about, how do you be an inclusive leader? So, we could talk for the next three hours about diversity equity and inclusion, but I digress.

Nina Nevill

Well, the spirituality aspect is really fascinating to me just because that’s not something that I automatically associate with the comfort level of most healthcare institutions. And so, that’s definitely something new from my perspective, at least, as the outside point of view.

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed.

True. And it’s a critical dimension. I mean, again, keep in mind we’re working at a cancer center. So, there are people who are very devoted to their faith but they’re in spiritual crisis because it’s like, “My child is dying from cancer and I’ve always been faithful to my faith. I’ve done the community service. I’ve given the monies. Why my child?” and, “God, why would you do this to me? I’m one of your faithful servants.” God, Allah, Krishna, whomever their God is, and for us to be mindful that when people are in spiritual crisis, sometimes they say things, and we need to just be able to say, “What resources do we have to support them and to not tell them, ‘Well, your God is not real.’



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The Historical Resources Center, The Research Medical Library, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

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Chapter 05:  Leadership Following The Death of George Floyd, Part 1