Advancing Diversity and Inclusion, One Courageous Conversation at a Time

By Nichole Owens ’94, November 25, 2020
James E. Taylor ’00 aims to shift mindsets about race.

James E. Taylor, ’00, PhD, remembers the time a few summers ago when an elderly white couple stopped to ask him a question while he was watering his front lawn. “As they walked by,” Taylor recalled,“they asked me if I worked for the people who owned the house.”

He also remembers the time a waiter at a high-end restaurant brought the bill before his meal was served—the implication, of course, being that he couldn’t afford to dine at such an extravagant expense. And he recounts several times being mistaken for a professional athlete. “I drive a sportscar. As I get out of the car, on occasion I will hear people whisper,‘Is that a Pittsburgh Steeler?’ The insinuation is that if I can afford to drive the car that I own and look as I do, I must be an athlete.”

Taylor isn’t an athlete. He’s senior vice president at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), a $21 billion, nonprofit health care provider and insurer, and the largest nongovernment employer in the state of Pennsylvania.Diversity and inclusion are some of the corporate functions for which he is responsible. An applied psychology major at IC, he’s made it his life’s work to bring attention to and try to help undo not only systemic racism but the microaggressions—the off-handed, offensive statements or actions like those described above—that help to perpetuate it in American life and institutions.

“I want to dispel the myth that in order for an experience to be considered or classified as racist, a person has to have ill intent.”

James Taylor ‘00 PhD

Working to shift mindsets about diversity, inclusion, and race has beenTaylor’s career for nearly 20 years. He has worked exclusively in the healthcare industry, previously for Carolinas HealthCare System and also Kaiser Permanente. In his current role, Taylor, who also serves on the Ithaca College Board of Trustees, spearheads UPMC’s diversity and inclusion, innovation, and talent management functions, which entails developing leading-edge inclusion strategies that advance the diversity management capability ofUPMC.

“The responsibilities are significant to ensure diversity is embedded in everything we do as the largest academic medical center in the country,” he said.

Due to the current environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the global outcry for social justice, the opportunities for action around diversity and inclusion are significant, as well. For Taylor and his team, this means partnering with communities who have serious underlying medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19—namely, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities, as well as the elderly in all communities, who are disproportionately affected by the virus.

“Improving the health and health status of the communities we serve is at the core of our mission at UPMC. And for us, the multicultural dimensions of our communities are undeniable,” Taylor said. “Health care is an extremely personal experience. And figuring out how to best link culture to health care outcomes is an important differentiator between good and exceptional quality care.”

Taylor said that in Pittsburgh, that commitment to measurable outcomes transcends health care to other fields, as well. He referenced a report released in fall 2019 around race and gender in the city of Pittsburgh, which compared the city to 89 other cities in areas of health, employment, education, and income. The results were startlingly disappointing, with Black Pittsburghers faring far worse in most categories than their counterparts in other cities. Taylor said the study brought issues of disparities to the forefront, and with it, action.

“This moment feels different from where I sit. What’s different is the degree of action companies are putting behind their pledges, especially when it comes to defining expectations for what it means to be an antiracist.”

James E. Taylor ’00 PhD

We’ve seen the community galvanize in a way I have not seen before—not just here in Pittsburgh but anywhere,”he said. “Foundations, nonprofits, and businesses are working on comprehensive interventions focused on, ‘How do we create a more equitable city and attract a more diverse workforce?’ I’m glad to be a part of this work that’s literally changing historic and systemic structures of our once iconic steel town into a modern cultural and innovation hub.”

And Taylor said that it’s that work that differentiates the present-day movement for social justice and equity from previous movements.

“This moment feels different from where I sit. What’s different is the degree of action companies are putting behind their pledges, especially when it comes to defining expectations for what it means to be an antiracist. Organizations, to some extent, are investing in this work as they hadn’t done before. They’re invested in community partnership, employee education, and reexamining hiring practices. Regardless of the C-suite chair they sit in, leaders are charged with advancing a diversity agenda.”

“If we leverage this moment, the work of diversity and inclusion practitioners will become somewhat obsolete as this will be a core function that every member of an organization is accountable for.”

James E. Taylor ’00 PhD

These investments are evident in popular culture and in professional sports organizations, such as theNational Football League and NASCAR. “The Washington Redskins,” Taylor noted. “For my entire lifetime, there was talk about their team name being offensive. I used to live in Charlotte—home of the NASCAR Hall of Fame—andI can tell you how significant it is to ban the Confederate flag from its racetrack properties.”

Taylor said that substantive, meaningful change starts with conversation, and he wants to do his part to ensure that conversation, coupled with actions toward real, lasting change, continues to move forward. When asked how he’ll be able to measure whether he’s been successful, he said, “If I’m ever able to work myself out of a job—if we leverage this moment in time, diversity and inclusion will become so embedded and baked into our communities and organizations that an oversight team or leader that oversees the D&I function for an organization will no longer be needed. If we leverage this moment, the work of diversity and inclusion practitioners will become somewhat obsolete as this will be a core function that every member of an organization is accountable for.”

Taking the Next Step
Yetunde Smalls ’21 wants to use her platform to help activate campus-wide change.