Vanessa Greene is the new CEO of GRAAHI and is expanding on the mission as a leader for health equity in West Michigan. She’s helping to identify and eliminate barriers to health for blacks, latinx and all people of color. Prior to this new position, Green held leadership positions focused on fostering diversity and inclusion at Hope College for the last 16 years. Vanessa Greene is this week’s Powerful Woman.
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Produced by women about women. Powerful women let's talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world transforming who we are and how we live. Powerful women, let's talk is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real.
Jennifer Moss: Hello everyone, it's time for powerful women let’s talk. Thanks so much for joining us today I’m Jennifer Moss, today's powerful woman is Vanessa Green, she is the chief executive officer of GRAAHI which of course is the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute and Vanessa has extensive experience in the Grand Rapids area most notably she spent 16 years in leadership positions focus on fostering diversity and inclusion at Hope college. So Vanessa Green we certainly welcome you to powerful women let’s talk.
Vanessa Green: Thank you Jenifer I am excited to be here so thanks for inviting me.
Jennifer Moss: And we are excited to have you here. So you have been responsible for strategic vision, planning, and the implementation of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts with a focus on the mental and physical well-being of students, faculty and staff of color. And you also chaired a 12-member racial equity steering committee to bring greater awareness to the issues of systemic and structural racism as well as bring about change. Now those are no small to do, that's why the task at hand- navigating through diversity and inclusion - of course that has powerful woman written all over it. So we're going to start by talking about your work at Hope college. Give us an idea of what you did there and then were going to move on to things you’re currently doing.
Vanessa Green: Thanks, Jennifer well fundamentally there are about 4 key areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion to bring about impact and those areas are rooted in recruitment and retention. And often when we think about diversity, equity, and inclusion we look at it in different like term analogies in terms of what brings about the greatest change is that diversity. Is it equity or is it inclusion and essentially it requires all three. But the most important aspect of making changes like the commitment from those who are involved in the decision-making process around recruitment, retention and what are the other, oh promotion.
Jennifer Moss: That’s a lot though, when you think about it that’s a lot.
Vanessa Green: We think about recruitment because nothing happens unless you have a critical mass of individuals who can bring about you know the type of diversity that really helps with equity and inclusion because without the composition of numbers then it’s really hard for people to come in a field included in any environment that might be say 85 or 90% dominant of one population and then when we think about even diversity of numbers being like 10% diverse or 15% diverse. that essentially means that within each of the diverse populations, African Americans. So we desegregate those numbers to African Americans that might mean like 3%. 3% of like Hispanic Americans and then 3% Asian American so you're still looking at a population that is majority white and so it makes like equity and inclusion a lot more challenging in that in that Fuller context
Jennifer Moss: And the Fuller context is important because I think a lot of times people look at diversity as a streamlined, I don't know that they're necessarily including it. So diversity they think it's like all under one umbrella but then there is inclusion and there is equity and they have different meanings in different outcomes as well right, and that's what you have to kind of pull it all the together.
Vanessa Green: Absolutely.
Jennifer Moss: And that's very important and you’ve had 16 years at Hope college.
Vanessa Green: Fundamentally I think that when you're looking at the smaller numbers and what is the outcome is, everything that I did in my job was looking at what’s the end result. And the end result was for students coming in want to have an experience where they felt included where they felt valued and affirmed in order for them to succeed. And after about 3 years of my experience at Hope college I started to focus more of my attention on student leadership development because it's very difficult for students to have like a full collegiate experience when they are like 3% of that population. However they're all coming for the same goal and that is to achieve in the discipline that they are interested in. And so I started working very specifically with corporations and partnering with corporations like Herman Miller and Spectrum Health and Mercantile bank. And I developed the leadership empowerment program where students were able to get funding through these corporations and organizations to go to conferences to go to like graduate schools and to develop leadership programs we have support from out multiple corporations and organizations with in Grand Rapids to support our diverse student population at Hope College. And what we saw was through focusing on leadership development in affirming them and their value. We saw them like aspiring to moving on into elite graduate schools so students of color were leaving Hope and going to schools like Princeton and Harvard and Yale and going to medical felids. Like one of our students who is actually from Kentwood, Michigan; David Paul he is a neurosurgeon resident in New York now.
Jennifer Moss: Wonderful!
Vanessa Green: And so we have a number of students who went on by to medical school or have graduated medical school are currently in residency. One of the things that students really got involved in was public policy so coming into the collegiate environment, we're you know diversity was such so much at the core forefront of them trying to figure their identity. In that type of environment and public policy became very interesting to them because one of the things that I try to impress upon them that anything that you see that's lacking in, then how do we then impart our skills and develop our skills and interest in ways that we can meet those changes. And so you're looking at education, you're looking at health care, you're looking at businesses, any of those fills in public policy is the area that we really need to look and how we can have influence. And so many of our students went on to graduate school programs where they get you know get their master’s degrees in public policy and it’s wonderful. So that’s what the students have achieved since leaving Hope, it’s just short of remarkable.
Jennifer Moss: And then you can see that mark and that's part of your legacy there for the work that you've done in went you did your first 3 years you said you started focusing in on that. Zeroing in on leadership and the like and so. You've got to be pretty proud of the work that you did. Then I'm going to fast forward to you now being the CEO of GRAAHI so tell us a little bit about that as well because that's a big task as well. I mean this is for the entire community of Metro Grand Rapids area. So tell us what you’re doing at GRAAHI.
Vanessa Green: One of the things about GRAAHI like think about your journey and where the journey takes you and in terms of your career, you know. I believe was just always in the making of my future in ways that I never could have imagined. But the core of GRAAHI stands within 4 pillars in our 4 pillars pronounce care which is what we're really all about is caring for our community and so our 4 pillars our community outreach, advocacy, research ,and education and so everything that we do are around those contacts and within community we're doing surveys. So that we can really have a pulse on where the community is in how their experience seems to be in health equity and in their lives in what their needs are in ways that GRAAHI can support them. And we do believe in like being on the grounds like grass roots and now being engaged in their everyday lives and everyday experience of our community in ways that they can build trust in know who we are. And I'm in so from advocacy that's what we're looking at like work within like the public policy areas and advocate based on our survey results in the feedback that we're getting from our community so we're advocating that within those contacts.
Jennifer Moss: From within the realm of what you received as a grade from one of your intake and health equity being huge as it is in every community but specifically here as you work within GRAAHI. So as we talk about powerful women have there been any barriers that you've encountered as you travel along your careers path, and that doesn't have to be specifically related to GRAAHI as you’ve only been there a couple of months as of right now, already doing outstanding. But what areas might you have encountered you know in your journey.
Vanessa Green: I think that particularly as a black woman. One of the things that that black women face is the stereotype of being like intimidating and I'm so I would say that that would be a one, one area that I've encountered because I'm a very go getter kind of person. I see things that needs to be done at the things in ways that I command influence and I'm very relational and warm in the way that I approach things. And thoughtful in the way that I approach things but being a black woman in leadership, it brings about the stigma of being intimidating and so I have experienced that at times in meetings when I may have a different perspective or see things that needs to be exposed or post a different way, or are seen from a different lands in perspective and then just being at the table in having that different kind of perspective can often be perceived as intimidating. And so what happens then is that you work very hard not to be labeled in that way and so you're always you have a tendency of trying to refrain and frame things in a way,
Jennifer Moss: And it almost takes away your personality as your trying to re craft your own initial response to things and just how you look at every meeting. It’s like okay I’m going to make sure I don't do this right or don’t say this. It's really unfortunate, but it's something that you've learned that you had to do.
Vanessa Green: You have to do it because you need people to hear your great and I need to you know the end goal in mind and so you just kind of figure out how to navigate those. Been there, but it's a lot of work is a lot of
Jennifer Moss: Extra
Vanessa Green: Is a lot of extra. That’s a good word.
Jennifer Moss: So on you’re on that road and that journey we live. We strive all of us, you know to move forward many women have said that it has taken a while to get a bit comfortable to find that voice your own voice kind of to own it getting comfortable in your own skin, how did you find yours?
Vanessa Green: Well I think that mine has been a journey and actually I started out in life very shy in. I didn't say a whole lot and so the Vanessa that people see now and the Vanessa that people knew before is like a completely different person. And I think it was a process and it was a process through observing like other leaders and so a lot of things that I've learned in finding my voice is really through of the leaders to remember when I worked for this company. It was a rehabilitation company and I had a white female colleague and I remember her challenging our supervisor on something and it was just the most unimaginable thing in the world to need to see someone challenging a supervisor and nothing happened. And the things that she challenged were very appropriate and relevant and it helped the supervisor to take a different approach to the situation in so just something like that and with that experience that helped me to find my voice. Because I like someone else speaking out on something with a positive outcome and so all the things that I had been you know brought up to think about the you know just kind of being I'm not challenging authority and those kinds of things. Than when I started seeing other people challenging authority and really being an asset in their voice being an asset and I don’t see finding your voice to be advisory I find it being complimentary and I find it be like supported, because if you don't care then you will be the person that's going to sit back and not say anything.
Jennifer Moss: And that kind of gave you the courage and to I believe I can do that too.
Vanessa Green: Right absolutely get the courage and being in diversity you can go into it with a passive kind of like mentality because people are expecting you. And if you're going to be in that seat in you need to make like really good use of your voice in so being in the seat gave me a sense of responsibility and so I had to even when I didn't necessarily feel courageous. So you had to do in order to speak out on things even when you don't necessarily feel the courage to do so, but you have to do it anyway because you're not serving yourself, you're serving the population that you've been hired to serve.
Jennifer Moss: And the last thing you want to do is to leave that meeting and then go home knowing I should have said that I should have said A,B, or C and beat yourself up over it
Vanessa Green: Absolutely
Jennifer Moss: And so it's very important to make those statements known or those thoughts and processes known. So being the CEO of GRAAI you know you're working for a lot of people in your organization. You're engaging the community, so what leadership traits do you like to see perhaps in those that might be with you on this journey, those you work with, or even those you mentor.
Vanessa Green: That’s a really good question, in fact just before coming here this morning. I’d launched an advisory Council for the Grand Rapids African American Institute and there are 13 people from all sectors of the community, including a representative from Holland from Muskegon and from Kalamazoo who are on the council. And the trait that I look for is really passion and commitment in. I am a mentoring nurturing leader by heart and when I hire people to work with people I basically like set a tone that you cannot fail because like I'm going to work alongside you. I value the skilled the diversity of skills that people bring to the table and so if a person has like an area that they're not fully developed in, then I’m going to work with them in get them the resources and develop them. Because they're things that I’m not gifted in right, like we all have our gifts and we all have things that were not, so my leadership style are in those areas where people are like strong and in leaning on them in those areas, but also given the opportunity to develop in other areas because that’s what I would want for myself. Like when someone is supervising me to give me the opportunity for continuous growth. I’m an encourager mentor nurturer by nature and so and I believe in empowering. I'm not a micro manager I don't want to hire people that have to be micromanaged and so I believe in empowering people to lean into the skills in believing that they join the organization or they're participating in the organization because they have a heart for the work.
Jennifer Moss: And that's kind of goes back to what you said someone gave you the courage to say something you're in developing others to have that same feeling about being able to talk about what aspects of that you're working in and maybe different ideas that may come forth, and in the group sessions and the things along those lines encouraging that. So what are some of the ways that you balance your work life and your personal life, I believe both of us are in the same category your kids are grown right, so it was harder back when. But now how are you balancing your personal and family life because I know you still want time with everyone.
Vanessa Green: That's really a question and I think balances is very important and I tell people that work is both like professional and personal, you know. So there's not a big divide in the kind of work that I do and the personal. I actually find work fun if that makes any sense like I love what I do know it has been saying you know what,
Jennifer Moss: Work is fun love is work.
Vanessa Green: Yes, it's been great working in so even in social settings I tend to be like talking about work as well. But I love to read, I love reading I love poetry, I like to walk. And I am I am an introvert borderline introvert/extrovert at the end of the day I love people, but at the end of the day I need to retreat into my quiet time. And so that's kind of how at I might balance is, I do I need to like to decompress and go into my private time, meditate, and read.
Jennifer Moss: Those are good things and so and easy breezy question for you that is one of my faves that I always ask it because I think it's key, what makes you laugh?
Vanessa Green: I knew you were going to ask that question, and like fun just in general simple things make me laugh. Like looking at a baby and a toddler just kind of like walking, and in then learning to talk of the first time, and the things that they say. I have a great niece who's like 3 years old and nothing makes me laugh more than this little girl. She is hilarious
Jennifer Moss: They have so much energy
Vanessa Green: they do and I don’t have grandkids yet even though I have like older kids they haven’t blessed me with grandkids yet, but I have a niece in town who has a daughter, my great-niece and I literally will just go visit them just to sit and laugh, but this little girl.
Jennifer Moss: And they can be very funny absolutely.
Vanessa Green: And it doesn’t take much to make me laugh because I am pretty light hearted light spirited and I like to be around people who are not too serious in life all the time, that we could just sit around and chill a little bit.
Jennifer Moss: As they say it's good for the soul. Is so you know so much happening in our world today of course people are looking for words of encouragement. Do you by chance have any favorite sayings are modos that you use that encourage you or that you can pass on to others that would lend a word of encouragement, especially during you know everything that's going on these days we always need a little pick me up.
Vanessa Green: Yes, yes, well that's a that's a very good question I have a lot of favorite sayings. I’m a quote person, I'm by nature and I'm going to have to like think of one….. I love mantras in quotes you know ‘this too shall pass’ like one of the things is like you know nothing is new under the sun and I think that everything that we experience is that it's more about like our attitude and looking at what we could do to make a difference and to always believe in the hope. If we lose hope we lose everything. So I even in the darkest hours in the darkest times right now that I've never expected in my life time that we would go back, you know to the madness that we're seeing today, but I still have hope in belief that this too shall pass.
Jennifer Moss: And that is that this too shall pass must know that whatever journey part of the journey that may be a little bumpy for you at some point it may move along.
Vanessa Green: And then I think the other one is to remain there, you know to take care of ourselves, you know like God has given all of us like a particular assignment and so there are things that each of us can do to bring a positive impact in change in the chaos that we're seeing in the world. And so what is it that you can do in that.
Jennifer Moss: Wonderful, the Vanessa Green I really enjoyed this conversation, speaking with one of our powerful women right here in West Michigan want to thank you so much for joining us today.
Vanessa Green: But thank you again for inviting me it was fun
Jennifer Moss: And of course I also want to thank our listeners as well for joining us for this edition of powerful women, let's talk I'm Jennifer Moss.
Produced by women about woman these powerful podcast focus on powerful women in how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more powerful women, let's talk. Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts, please rate and subscribe. Powerful women, let's talk is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real. Produced by WGBH at the Myer public broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University, the views and opinions expressed in this program to not necessarily reflect those of WGVU its underwriters for Grand Valley State University.