Member Spotlight on – Dawn Christian
Executive Vice President and Head of Inclusion, Equity and Diversity, and Cultural Marketing, GCI Health
CEO & Founder of Belong by Dawn Christian, LLC
Tell us how you came to work in marketing communications in the healthcare field.
My educational background is in sociology and marketing. When I was 18, I had the misfortune of losing my mother to lupus. That’s why I was drawn to the healthcare field, and GCI Health is a communications firm that specializes in healthcare. I come from a family of educators, and marketing communications is a form of education, too, so it is a good fit.
Can you tell us more about your family?
Ours is an American story. We are educators, changemakers and pioneers. I am a wife and boy mom. Together, my husband and I have five children, including my four stepchildren. I am the youngest of seven children in a blended family. My husband is a retired police officer who was dedicated to serving the community he grew up in, often mentoring young people and connecting with them through his own lived experiences as a young Black man. My father doesn’t talk much about his early days, because that was a dark period, but his story is still inspirational. He is from Louisiana, where we were once enslaved, then we were sharecroppers, and now we own the land. He went into the military at age 22 or 23 years old and retired as a full colonel, and then he worked in the defense industry. He continued his education and has several degrees. He went to medical school at 53 and is a practicing psychiatrist, working with veterans.
My mother’s family is from Tennessee, and my grandfather inspired my mom to teach. My grandfather, Dr. Merl Eppse, was an author and noted historian that signed (then) Negro History Week into proclamation for the state of Tennessee. There is a dorm in his name at Tennessee State University, an HBCU where he wrote some of the earliest Black history books, which were self-published due to racial discrimination. He taught Wilma Rudolph, who also babysat my mother (fun fact).
My mother integrated Northfield Mount Hermon boarding school (then Northfield Boarding School for Girls) along with one other Black student, where the dorms were segregated. She graduated and attended Fisk University, an HBCU, and graduated from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She was also a career educator teaching in public schools, at the college level and in the non-profit sector. My great uncle a few generations removed on my mother’s side was Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first Black U.S. Senator. Several of my siblings, aunts and uncles, like my mother, are career educators.
And you came to GCI Health at an important moment in our history, right?
I did. I came here about 18 months ago, in September 2020, just after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and in the middle of the pandemic. This was a time when GCI Health, like a lot of organizations, was looking closely at its diversity and equity footprint and how we were addressing it internally with staff and externally with clients and the community. This was also at the time of the “open letter” from 600 black people in advertising demanding change in their profession.
The marketing communications profession is an interesting one, in terms of representation, right?
While I cannot declare it for the broader industry, the majority of the people at our company are women. But this makes us look more diverse than we really are. There are very few people of color in our business. We have nearly 500 employees at GCI Health, and we have initiated three employee resource groups (ERG). Too few organizations take seriously the “R” in ERG. These shouldn’t be just forums for people to talk to one another. They should be resources for the entire organization to build their cultural competency while listening to the lived experiences of the membership to inform a more inclusive and equitable employee experience.
At GCI Health, you refer to IED, right, not DEI? Why is that?
I put inclusion first to prioritize being globally minded and culturally competent. Establishing a commitment to an inclusive culture primes the space for the rigorous practice of equity, and now we are better focused to do that. Equity holds us accountable to be specific and intentional about our approach, programs and strategies by minding the gaps and recognizing privileges. Because we have prioritized inclusion, we are primed to stay vigilant and honor that everyone’s resources and access are different.
Diversity is a fact and all of us — as individuals — are diverse. Diverse means different. Marketers sometimes make the mistake of treating all Black people as a monolith, or all white males, or whatever the category might be. When I was in elementary school, I used crayons to draw a picture of my mother. My mother was Black, and she had red hair, and when I drew my mother with red hair, the teacher corrected me. She told me Black people do not have red hair — and this was in the ‘80s! At GCI Health, we have a cultural marketing lead, who works with our clients so that their marketing has a multicultural and even “polycultural” and intersectional perspective to correct these misconceptions.
How does the healthcare field fit into your larger concerns about these important issues?
Here is an example. A lot of my work has been in nephrology — in kidney disease. You might never notice this — you can’t often identify them when you drive by — but a lot of dialysis centers are in neighborhoods that are low-income, elderly, Black or brown. That’s because these are communities where there is a high prevalence of kidney disease. But very few of these people are represented in the trial stage of products or in market research. That must change. Something that did emerge from the pandemic was an elevated recognition of medical mistrust and healthcare disparities and a household conversation about that problem. That was not the case before COVID-19.
You have your own consulting firm?
Yes, I do. It is called Belong by Dawn Christian, LLC, because this practice is all about the basic human desire to have a sense of belonging. Our tagline is claiming and creating spaces to belong. We do a lot of ethos-focused executive coaching and speak about belonging as a core competency for leadership and the foundation for creating more inclusive and equitable organizations. We are the creators of the Belonging Conference (aka #BeCon).
What are “office hours”?
That’s something I have established here at GCI Health and has now caught on with other functions as well. It is a time for people to just ask questions with grace and without judgment. We can do it one-on-one or in small groups. For instance, employees might come to me and ask whether, or when, they should say “Black” or “African-American” or “People of Color.” I answer with grace but also with grit. Sometimes, from the way they ask, I want them to tell me more context behind the question — where they are coming from — and then we unpack that. But I appreciate the fact that they care enough to ask. It means they are willing to learn. We grow as a community.