Diversity initiative raises awareness across Medical Campus

From left, Genome Institute employees Craig Pohl, Obi Griffith, PhD, Catrina Fronick, Vince Magrini, PhD, and Tracie DeLuca participate in an exercise at a recent presentation on the Medical Campus. Diversity and inclusion leader Denise DeCou (back right) observes as the group excludes Fronick. (Credit: ROBERT BOSTON)

At presentations to raise diversity awareness, Daniel Blash and Denise DeCou divide participants into groups and tell one person in each group to leave the room. They then tell those remaining to ignore and not make eye contact with the individuals when they return. The interactive exercise highlights the importance of not excluding others.

“Being excluded is very powerful,” said Blash, PhD, one of two full-time diversity and inclusion leaders in human resources at Washington University School of Medicine. “It can have lasting effects.”

Blash and DeCou, also a diversity and inclusion leader, are on a mission to create a work environment that includes and nurtures people from all backgrounds. Their assignment is to reach 50 percent of the medical school workforce by June.

“Our primary goals are to provide direct support to departments and individuals and to help hiring committees,” Blash said. “Diversity and inclusion are key drivers of institutional excellence.”


Since being hired last fall, the pair has met with department heads and given countless presentations to groups across campus. Their outreach includes 60-90 minute training workshops that target biases such as racism and sexism. They ask participants to become more conscious of the words they use when talking to people who are different from them.

“It’s an important first step for people to understand that we all have a different perspective on a number of things,” DeCou said. “It doesn’t mean that one way is correct and the other way is wrong.”

Rick Stanton, associate vice chancellor and associate dean for administration and finance, said that the medical school is fortunate to have Blash and DeCou. “They bring years of experience and insight to us and are well-rooted in the St. Louis community,” he said. “I hope they’re able to encourage employees to have difficult discussions about uncomfortable topics and to enlighten and engage our workforce.”

Blash, an advocate for inclusion in the St. Louis educational community, is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in youth and family issues. He founded a counseling agency in north St. Louis and also has written grants for diversity programs that target underrepresented minority students.

DeCou, a former diversity leader in the nonprofit world, founded Loretta’s Work, a firm aimed at developing young leaders. She also served as executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice of Metropolitan St. Louis and as project director of The Anti-Defamation League.

In addition to raising diversity awareness and supporting efforts to hire a more diverse workforce, Blash and DeCou have been asked to help improve the career paths of underrepresented minorities working at the medical school. They are developing a program that will help staff pursue promotions and make moves to different departments.

“If we’re successful, we will have created a climate of mutual respect in our workplace,” DeCou said. “We want people to recognize the value in each other’s differences as well as our similarities.”