In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

February 22, 2022

Voices of Mayo: Arethea Erwin on being seen as a Black woman, finding allies at Mayo Clinic

By In the Loop
Arethea Erwin

During Black History Month, Mayo Clinic is sharing the experiences of Black colleagues at Mayo Clinic and their thoughts on creating a culture of empathy, support and belonging at Mayo Clinic. This "Voices of Mayo" column features Arethea Erwin, a senior workforce analyst at Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

Arethea Erwin was born in Kansas and raised in Southern California and Arizona. Since her family lived in the suburbs, she did not grow up immersed in a Black community. Growing up, she was often the only Black person or person of color in her class. But her experience being around people of different cultures has helped her appreciate her own individuality while helping her form deep and lasting friendships, she says.

Erwin, a senior workforce analyst in Human Resources at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, wasn't initially familiar with Mayo Clinic. But her search for part-time work to accommodate child care needs led her to connect with a friend who worked in Human Resources, and ultimately join Mayo Clinic as a receptionist in the department.

She shares her experience working at Mayo and the importance of hearing different perspectives and becoming intentional allies for each other.

Mayo Clinic had a special vibe that appealed to me from my first interview.

Being hired into Human Resources and already knowing someone in the department, I had built-in support to acclimate. Human Resources was the most diverse unit I had worked in at that point in my career, and a rare instance where I wasn't the sole person of color.

I did feel welcomed and engaged. I have a curious and analytical nature, and I was given many opportunities to grow my talents and skills.

Mayo has a Midwesterner heart, and the "Mayo nice" concept was confusing, but I embraced making connections without changing my Southwesterner nature. The existing majority culture set the conservative dress and decorum standard, and for many years I did straighten my hair to avoid being a distraction. But as those standards expanded, so did my hair.

In the 90s, in a predominantly white corporate environment, the expectations for individuality were not high, and I used to grin and bear disrespectful behaviors. As organizational diversity responsiveness grew, I've felt safer to address rather than absorb bias when I identify it. But I've never felt I lost out on any opportunity because I was Black or female.

Among the highlights of my experience at Mayo have been obtaining engaging assignments by working with supportive leaders who recognized my talents even when I didn't myself. I have been astounded by the growth at the Arizona campus.

I reached the 25-year service milestone at Mayo, and my daughter now works at Mayo as well. I work with talented and amazing people.

I'm surrounded by role models and mentors. Dean Barnes was the first director of Diversity in Arizona. I learned so much seeing him navigate his role as a Black leader when this was a brand-new corporate position. The solid short- and long-term career advice he shared with me still serves me well today.

Patsy Barker is the person who recommended me to work at Mayo. She excelled at networking and, as an ally, is the best cheerleader anyone could have in their corner.

I would not have lasted very long without a reliable mentoring network. Mayo's lifeblood is research and education, making it easy to tap into supportive and amazing role models and mentors. I consider my current team, People Analytics, the African Descendants Mayo Employee Resource Group (MERG), my Black female cohorts, and my comrade in arms for the last 20 years, Joan Topham, among my wealth of sources for role models and mentors.

Having trusted colleagues is invaluable, as is having influential, nurturing managers, where I feel appreciated for being myself. It's also important to have opinions of both those who agree and don't agree with you to offer balance to your perspective.

Going into my 28th year at Mayo, my expectations then versus what I would expect now are very different. The MERGs are something I wouldn't have expected as a new employee in 1994. But they are now accessible from Day One for employees and are a much-needed benefit. Mayo holds strong traditions, yet the value of being adaptable to question and refine those traditions is just as strong. By paying attention and acting to increase diversity, the organization is demonstrating commitment and motivation to eliminate racism. That is how it will get better and better.

At the baseline, we share honor and pride as Mayo employees. This bonds us. While the concept of "I don't see color" is well-meaning in trying to equalize, it's an ineffective diversity strategy for dealing with racial and cultural differences. I feel supported when I'm seen as a person, and it's a package. I'm a Black female person. When my name is spelled and pronounced correctly, I experience support.  I also experience this when I'm able to share my thoughts and opinions without being patronized, minimized, dismissed or gaslighted. We don't have to agree on everything. Things are not always absolutes as in right or wrong, but we can respectfully understand each other's point of view.

When a minority employee shares their perspective, the opportunity to interact supportively is in how and what is said to acknowledge that perspective. In some cultures, viewpoints are discussed with intensity and enthusiasm, but another culture might receive it as unprofessional or emotional. These are opportunities that can either support stereotype pitfalls or support introspective attachments. Because a supportive and empathic culture is wanted by everyone, but not experienced by everyone.

My hope for Mayo Clinic in being an inclusive place to work is that there is mutual admiration for everyone being their authentic selves. And that there is recognition and support for a variety of talents and benefiting from solid relationships where we learn acceptance from each other. We must be intentional allies to each other.


Tags: Arethea Erwin, Employee Stories, Voices of Mayo

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