Kaiser Permanente’s Dr. Ronald L. Copeland on Getting to a More Equitable World

Originally published on LinkedIn. Dr. Ronald Copeland is Kaiser Permanente’s Senior Vice President of National Diversity & Inclusion Strategy & Policy and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer. Kaiser Permanente is a Hall of Fame company.


I recently had the honor of hosting Kaiser Permanente’s 44th annual National Equity, Inclusion and Diversity conference — the longest-standing conference in our organization’s history. It was one of the highlights of the year for me and an incredible opportunity to inspire and champion equity, inclusion and diversity with thousands of employees and physicians in attendance. Our conference theme was #RiseTogether. The theme highlights how the people of Kaiser Permanente have rallied together to overcome obstacles — standing united and working tirelessly to support our mission of total health and wellbeing for ALL. It’s also about healing and using the power of the collective to rise together. It’s an appropriate theme for the times.

During the 2-day conference, I asked people to reflect and jot down a few things that inspired them. I did the same, and I’d like to share my top three takeaways in hopes that they’ll inspire you as they did me.


1. The Groundwater Metaphor, shared by Deena Hayes-Green, partner at Groundwater Institute and co-founder of The Racial Equity Institute

“If you have a lake in front of your house and one fish is floating belly-up dead, it makes sense to analyze the fish. What is wrong with it? But if you come out to that same lake and half the fish are floating belly-up dead, what should you do? This time you’ve got to analyze the lake. Now, picture five lakes around your house, and in each and every lake half the fish are floating belly-up dead! What is it time to do? We say it’s time to analyze the groundwater. How did the water in all these lakes end up with the same contamination? On the surface, the lakes don’t appear to be connected, but it’s possible — even likely — that they are. In fact, over 95% of the freshwater on the planet is not above ground where we can see it; it is below the surface in the groundwater.”

I love this metaphor because it reminds us to stay focused on racism as a structural arrangement, not just as it manifests at the individual level. Inequities are often caused by systems and conditions, regardless of people’s culture or behavior. The results we get are caused by the design of our systems, so if you want to get more equitable outcomes, you need to redesign systems using an equity-centered design approach. This means co-creating solutions using a process that focuses on equity and humility, integrating history, healing practices and power dynamics.


2. Actionable Tips for Leaders, from Michael Klobuchar, Executive VP and Chief Strategy Officer, Merck

“Leaders must get close to the problem by understanding the issues — by listening and learning, and putting yourself in the shoes of employees.

Leaders must also act. It’s great to listen and learn, but different outcomes require that you do something differently.

As a leader, YOU have to drive accountability. Stop using the word ‘we’ because it removes the personal accountability required of each of us. It’s all about taking the personal accountability to act.

Leadership is a privilege. If I’m not being a force for good in this world given the abundance of influence I’ve been given, then I’ve squandered the opportunity to make a lasting impact on my colleagues, their families and society.”

There are a handful of attributes for leading inclusively, but in his comments, Michael called out a couple that really resonated with me, such as self-awareness and the importance of facing the challenge of leading during uncertain times. The curiosity to learn about something different from what we believe in is critical. However, equally important is having the courage to unlearn things from the past that perpetuate inequities. Leadership comes with a responsibility, and as leaders, we must be willing to step into discomfort to make a true impact.


3. Challenge Orthodoxies, from Kavitha Prabhakar, Chief DEI Officer of Deloitte Consulting LLP

“We must challenge orthodoxies — the unstated assumptions that go unquestioned and get in the way of good intentions. One example is that we’re an unbiased meritocracy. We have to recognize there are hidden advantages and hidden barriers we need to challenge to deepen our understanding of each other and our experiences and to advance more equitable outcomes. Another example of an orthodoxy we should challenge is that we need a precedent before we act. No, we can be the first.”

This left me questioning what other orthodoxies we must challenge to get to a more equitable world. And how do we go through the journey of flipping them? If the status quo that is producing current results isn’t aligned with our values, our mission and our equity aspirations, we must be wise and courageous enough to call those things out. We must choose to lead and be brave enough to set a precedent rather than following the lead of others. Leadership is a choice and sometimes a tough one, particularly when it’s in pursuit of transformation. It’s much easier to take a step if somebody else has already paved the way and shows it works. To be that first person to step out on a ledge and do something different when you’re not sure of the outcome, that takes special courage.

When it comes to courage and the power of the human spirit, the people of KP never cease to amaze and inspire me. You’ll see why in Kaiser Permanente’s Rise Together video, which served as the opening for the conference. I want to thank our employees and physicians for being courageous and brave enough to speak up — to share their stories, wisdom and testimonies for healing. I’m so inspired by their grit, growth mindset and resiliency, as well as their ability to overcome challenges. And to everyone: be compelled to act. Ask yourself where you can act differently and how you can make a more meaningful difference.

Let’s keep this movement for inclusion, equity and belonging moving forward! It’s going to take all of us, and each one of us has something valuable to contribute. We all have accountability for advancing this work and to be good ancestors, especially during this historic awakening and reckoning around racial equity and social justice that we’re experiencing. What we do (or don’t do) with this opportunity today will have an enduring impact as future generations look back and ask (or criticize) what we did on our watch. Let’s take up the challenge of turning this moment into a transformational and sustainable movement that doesn’t just take us back to “normal,” but builds a better world, providing hope and inspiration to the next generation and providing them with a foundation upon which to build a more equitable and inclusive world.

Let’s Rise Together!