Committed to Change

illustration of diverse crowd

The Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Institute pushed teams to take a hard look at their schools as they strive to make their campuses better for everyone.

By Athena Ponushis

History is not history in Mississippi. That’s what Dr. Katie McClendon said as she welcomed nearly 400 attendees to the inaugural Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Institute hosted by AACP and the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy. She told the story of James Meredith, the first Black student to enroll at Ole Miss. Two people died in a riot following his arrival on campus. “He was not made to feel welcome. Unfortunately, he was not the last student to feel that way,” said McClendon, clinical associate professor, assistant dean for student services and director of student affairs at UM’s School of Pharmacy. She believes you must reckon with history while looking forward, which is why Ole Miss wanted to co-host this event: to show the school’s commitment to fundamentally changing its culture to make its campus more diverse and inclusive.

Inclusiveness is one of AACP’s core values and starting the institute was another way of following through on its aim to support members and provide insights and resources for institutions at any stage of the EDI process. Some schools in attendance were just getting started, some had policies in place but more work to do, while others had been working within their strategic plans for years. What emerged from the institute was a unified voice, pharmacy as a voice for EDI.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion is a collective process. You can’t do it on your own, and that was the beauty of the institute, seeing the different schools and their teams all there collaboratively working toward this cause from the different stages of their efforts,” said Rosie Walker, AACP’s director of recruitment and diversity. The virtual meeting drew 365 registrants, 60 teams from different schools of pharmacy, 250 participants connected at any given time over three days in January. EDI work can feel overwhelming, as it’s an ongoing endeavor, but the institute carved out time for teams to engage in implicit bias awareness, assess culture and climate on campus, and develop and tailor EDI plans to put into practice at their institutions. Even greater than the time the institute gave participants to do the work was the appreciation for how meaningful the work can be.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion is very personal to me,” Walker said. “As schools move forward with implementing their EDI plans, I want to remind them to be bold in their implementation. I want schools to develop a better understanding of how these issues affect the individuals on their campuses, whether it’s their students, faculty or staff, because sometimes it isn’t an agenda item for these individuals, it’s part of their daily work and personal life. That’s the thing I really want to see. I want diversity and inclusion to become ingrained in every aspect of our policies and all the things we do on our campuses, as opposed to a separate initiative.”

Weaving in Inclusion

Carla White, associate dean of organizational diversity and inclusion (ODI) and a clinical assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Eshelman School of Pharmacy, built a comprehensive, organizational EDI strategy to direct and align with the school’s educational mission. A pragmatic disruptor in the EDI space, she spoke at the institute about her passion: strategy development. “Whenever you have a centralized strategy, meaning one office that’s responsible for executing everything in the EDI space, it’s just not sustainable and it’s not productive,” White said. “Cultural transformation cannot take place with one office and a few individuals. The school community needs to be engaged to create the shift needed for change.”

White’s office guides the strategy development and shared ownership of inclusive initiatives, while sometimes serving as a catalyst. Everyone within the school can collaborate with ODI but are also encouraged and empowered to lead programmatic efforts in alignment with their roles and interests.

How we spend our money shows our values. Allocate funding to scholarships, or time support for faculty, administrators and staff. Demonstrate your commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Dr. Katie McClendon

“I have always been an advocate for an organizational strategy aimed at infrastructure,” she said. For example, division chairs will look at their faculty with an equity lens to ensure diverse and inclusive perspectives are represented; student and curricular affairs will cast a wide net to ensure pharmacy and the pharmaceutical sciences is accessible to everyone; search committee chairs will send job announcements to sources where diverse talent goes to find information. Schools must also ask applicants about their commitment to diversity and evaluate faculty on what they have done to advance equity. “This is what I mean by infrastructure,” White said. “Utilizing key processes within the school becomes a part of our fabric and the way we operate. More importantly, it’s meaningful. People say, ‘Oh, I see why this is important. I see how this connects to the work that I do,’ and that empowers individuals to contribute.”

White’s EDI work at UNC started back in 2007 with a desire to attract more diverse talent to the Pharm.D. program. Strategy was built around program initiatives, programs directed at leadership development, mentoring and how to prepare for the admissions process. White and her colleagues found that these programs, while important, did not address the student experience, or the support for faculty on how to facilitate inclusive classroom practices, or the need for staff to feel valued, so they expanded their approach.

Whenever you have a centralized strategy, meaning one office that’s responsible for executing everything in the EDI space, it’s just not sustainable and it’s not productive. Cultural transformation cannot take place with one office and a few individuals. The school community needs to be engaged to create the shift needed for change.

Carla White

In 2018 her office evolved into the office of organizational diversity and inclusion. White knew how multifaceted the work would be. It was essential for people to understand how their work would connect to the greater work, so she built out a strategic plan with the help of a small working group made up of faculty, staff and the dean, who met weekly and worked nimbly. The group wrote several drafts which they then shared with key stakeholders—students, faculty, staff, alumni. After socializing the plan, White and her group identified three priorities: recruit and retain diverse talent; prepare culturally intelligent individuals; and build an inclusive community. “Those are our anchors,” she noted. Under those priorities the school has strategic initiatives and metrics to hold them accountable (accessible at for all the world to see.

Strategy Above Money

No matter where a school may be on its EDI path today, it’s critical to develop a plan. White hopes that’s the greatest takeaway from the institute: Develop your plan, because without one, it will be challenging. Focus is needed. There are so many layers to unpack with this work.

The University of Mississippi’s School of Pharmacy is in the process of finalizing its strategic plan in alignment with the diversity and inclusion plan at the university level. McClendon is excited to see how their plan will point them forward. “I’ll be honest, I don’t think we are the best practice for other schools to look toward. There’s so much we need to work on. Our team was at the meeting just like everyone else, furiously writing down notes, jotting down ideas. The one thing we do have, this past year we formed our permanent committee on diversity and inclusion, so that will be part of the structure of our school moving forward,” she said.

That kind of self-awareness combined with understanding what your challenges are and what you have the capacity to do at your school may be the first step. Then build strategy around that. “A lot of times, I hear people say, ‘Well, we don’t have the money to start.’ And I ask, ‘What are you going to use the funds for?’ And they say, ‘To hire people.’ When I follow up with, ‘Well, what are they going to do?’ then it’s just silence,” White said. “Funding is needed, but you need a plan. We should also consider that recruiting diverse talent relies on building relationships and education does not always have to be linked to a cost. It’s amazing to me the talent, expertise, experience and resources that are within departments and at the university levels.”

McClendon would also challenge deans to align their existing resources with this work. “How we spend our money shows our values,” she pointed out. “Allocate funding to scholarships, or time support for faculty, administrators and staff. Demonstrate your commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Keep the Patient in Mind

Another takeaway from the institute that Walker found to be transformative for some dealt with implicit bias. Participants attended a workshop where they were placed in an uncomfortable situation and had to do some self-reflection. They were able to openly and honestly discuss what they were thinking and feeling with individuals who could lend perspective.

“That’s the biggest thing with implicit bias, you don’t know how to deal with those situations if you’ve never been consciously mindful of being in those situations. A lot of times it really just involves slowing down your thinking,” Walker said. “Looking at the situation you are in and slowing down your thinking, identifying what your initial response would be and then looking at it in different ways.”

Surrounding yourself with outstanding leadership as well as individuals that bring a range of perspectives that you can learn from is important. White pointed out that the dean at her school, Dr. Angela Kashuba, added a critical piece to the paradigm shift that needed to take place. “We are still in that shift. We are shifting, with the support of our dean,” White said. “Our dean was very clear that EDI is one of her top priorities. That has positioned us for success.”

With its mission to lead and partner with its members to advance pharmacy education and practice, as well as societal health, AACP has joined CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, a CEO-driven business commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace. AACP has also formed an internal Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism Committee and plans to implement implicit bias training at its leadership forum.

As for the future of the EDI Institute, “The intent for this is not to be a one-time meeting, but an annual activity, because this work is not a one-time effort. It’s a continual process of improving how we do things at our institutions,” McClendon said.

The inaugural meeting made it clear that schools of pharmacy must proceed with the patient in mind, and if schools want all patients to feel the value of their work, they must approach it with equity. “We are developing a pharmacy workforce. There’s tremendous responsibility in that,” White noted. “We have to build a workforce that is prepared to care for anyone, because society is counting on us to do that.”

Athena Ponushis is a freelance writer based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.