Inside Track: Faith fuels Booker’s fight for equity
New VP of diversity, equity and inclusion for Metro Health-University of Michigan Health shares path to ‘positive change.’
Rhae-Ann Booker was surprised when, fresh out of college, her alma mater, Calvin College, invited her back to work as a minority student adviser in admissions.
That’s because, during her time there, Booker had been a leader in multicultural student development and a vocal critic of the school — now called Calvin University — particularly when it came to issues of diversity and inclusion.
“I was quite outspoken, and everything that came out of my mouth wasn’t necessarily positive as I worked to impact this school and community that I absolutely loved,” she said.
Three months after Booker graduated in 1991, an employee took ill and recommended Booker as her replacement, saying, “I would encourage you to look at Rhae-Ann.”
When Booker got the call, she couldn’t resist the opportunity to make “a positive change” at Calvin — a passion she traces back to her youth.
Booker is one of five children born to a mom who was one of Grand Rapids’ first female African American postal workers and a dad who was a preacher. She said although her parents didn’t have specific expectations for what she would do with her life, they imparted a strong moral code.
“My parents’ leadership instilled a very strong work ethic, the importance of education, the importance of family and the significance of giving back to the community,” Booker said.
“All of that and more, situated on a strong faith foundation, mean that at the end of the day, whatever I pour my heart and mind and time and resources into, if it’s not pleasing to God, it’s not meaningful. So that very much helped direct my path and passions in life.”
By the summer after fifth grade, Booker already was showing leadership abilities.
Grand Rapids Public Schools at that time invited the top graduating fifth-graders from the elementary schools to attend a summer program at either Blandford Nature Center or at the John Ball Zoo School, so Booker — then Rhae-Ann Richardson — enrolled in the program.
Students at the nature center were required to do chores, including tending the chicken coop. Booker had never been around chickens in her life.
“My classmates who were more familiar with that frightened me,” she said. “They told me, ‘When you go in there, they’re going to just peck your hand and you’re going to be bleeding,’ all of this stuff.”
Booker couldn’t abide that, so she convinced the four other students on duty — who were all following the teacher on the long walk to the chicken coop — to resist.
“By the time we got there, they were in agreement. Our teacher went into that coop, we slammed the door, put the two-by-four over it, and we all ran back and went into class as if nothing had happened,” Booker said, laughing.
When the school later called her parents to report the incident, painting her as a wild child, Booker said her mom, “being the creative genius she was,” had a response ready.
“She said, ‘If my daughter was able to get four of her classmates to do what she wanted them to do, she’s not bad; she’s a leader.’
“And so early on, there were signs that I was called to leadership, but I also had the need for it to be channeled in a positive direction,” Booker said.
That came in time.
Enrolling at Calvin after high school, Booker declared a pre-medicine major, inspired mainly by the soap opera “General Hospital,” and later by her mother’s multiple sclerosis that would eventually cause her to lose her vision. But even her mother didn’t think pre-med was a good fit.
“You don’t even like blood,” she said.
After getting her very first “C” in chemistry class, Booker changed her major to math, then as she grew to know herself better, to sociology, putting her on the path to her current career.
“I’ve always been excited by understanding social systems and how they work to advantage some while disadvantaging other groups,” she said.
“How can we literally walk through this same world or the same community or maybe even work at the same jobs and experience things so differently? Sometimes, those experiences are based on our socioeconomic background or religious beliefs or sexual orientation, race, gender, etc. That fascinated me.”
Booker went on to earn a master’s degree in social work with an emphasis on administration and policy planning, and master’s and doctorate degrees in the areas of evaluation, measurement and research design — all from Western Michigan University.
After being hired at Calvin, she continued working there for 20 years, creating the multicultural student development office — which still exists — becoming assistant dean of academic multicultural affairs and working as an evaluator of the college’s programs.
She said she is proud of the legacy she built there.
“To be able to take (an objective) from a vision and to put bones and meat on it in a way where you can demonstrate its success and sustainability, I think that’s something I brought,” she said.
While at Calvin, Booker got a call from Davenport University in 2011. The school was looking for someone to be its inaugural executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion. Booker leapt at the chance to get in on the ground floor of something new and work toward positive change.
She stayed on for nine years, leading the design, development and implementation of Davenport’s first university-wide DEI strategic plan.
Booker said she was thrilled to see just recently that her former position was posted on Davenport’s careers page, and some of the expectations included in the job description were a direct result of her vision and the work she did there.
“I put some pretty solid things in place that they want this next person to continue,” she said.
Metro Health-University of Michigan Health invited Booker to do the same thing she did at Davenport: define the health system’s DE&I philosophy and implement it.
Since she’s only been in the position for a couple of months, Booker said she still is learning the organizational culture and what models might work best to advance DE&I in alignment with its vision, mission and strategic priorities.
While she expects to hire a DE&I team eventually, she said it will be important not to work in silos.
“When (DE&I is) done well, it is weaved throughout all aspects of the organization,” she said.
Booker said Metro Health’s Health Equity Committee, a group of about 25-30 employees, laid the groundwork for her role and advocated for it with senior leadership, and she is “picking up the baton from their good work.”
She said her goal at Metro Health is the same as it has been everywhere she goes, whether Calvin, Davenport or elsewhere.
“I plan to go about this work in a way where Metro Health will be the leading example of a diverse, equitable and inclusive organization in health care, if not across industries. That’s how much I’m committed to this and plan to lead this charge and am hoping to empower and engage others to be just as engaged.”