"No Single Entity Can Solve This Challenge Alone": An Honest Conversation About Racial Inequity
It's time to have hard and heartfelt conversations about the state of racism and inequity. At home. With friends and loved ones. With other members of your community. In the workplace.
At Johnson & Johnson, these conversations have been taking place across the company in response to recent events. And they will continue to be held with employees at all levels, and across all parts of the company.
It's something that Michael Sneed, Executive Vice President, Global Corporate Affairs & Chief Communication Officer, is heartened and proud to see taking place at a company that he has called his career home since 1983, when he took a job as a marketing assistant for consumer products.
Sneed shared some of the perspectives he's gained during this lengthy career when he recently joined a conversation with government leaders, as a panelist for a discussion held by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), Black America–The Double Pandemic. He joined experts to share thoughts and ideas for how to address the damaging impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the Black community.
We sat down with Sneed to learn more about his participation in the CBCF event, what Johnson & Johnson is doing to help tackle disparities when it comes to COVID-19 and other health conditions, how he has watched the company evolve to be more inclusive and diverse over the past three decades—and what work still remains to be done.
What would you say are the areas of greatest need when it comes to addressing health disparities among Black Americans?
Sadly, we see disparities that are unfavorable to Black Americans in nearly every facet of our society—in business, where only 3.2% of senior leaders are Black; in government, where there are currently no Black governors; and in general prosperity, based on the fact that an average Black family possesses one-tenth the wealth of an average white family. These are just a few of countless examples. We live in a deeply unequal society.
Health statistics follow suit. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), younger Black Americans are living with or dying of many conditions typically found in white Americans at older ages, including heart disease and high blood pressure.
Tragically, we’ve also seen how disproportionately Black Americans have been affected by the current pandemic. According to the CDC, they have represented 33% of hospitalized patients, compared to 18% in the surrounding community. Death rates are also notably higher.There are many systemic reasons for this inequity, including adequate access to care, affordability of care and education.
I’m particularly passionate about improving access because, as a teenager, I spent summers and weekends working at a nursing facility my grandmother founded to help serve Chicago’s Black community. I watched as they opened their arms to every person that walked through the door, creating a place of acceptance, inclusion and hope.
Whether it’s through equipping more grassroots community health workers and facilities like my grandmother's, or exploring innovative options, such as mobile care vans or remote health, we must find better ways to reach these high-risk, low-income patients.
Johnson & Johnson is investigating a potential COVID-19 vaccine candidate. How is the company working to ensure that the potential vaccine would be available to underserved populations, both abroad and in the U.S.?
While COVID-19 has left an impact on nearly every segment of society, it has been particularly devastating in underserved communities. So as we work to accelerate the development of a safe and effective vaccine, it is just as urgent for us to ensure we can provide access to it worldwide, including for the most vulnerable populations.
That’s why we are not only increasing our manufacturing capacity to provide more than one billion doses of a potential vaccine, but also preparing to deliver it on a not-for-profit basis for emergency pandemic use.
As a global healthcare leader, it’s the right thing to do.
What other work is the company doing to help address the high infection and mortality rates from COVID-19 within the Black community?
We’ve been working to address health inequities in communities of color for some time, and COVID-19 makes our work all the more urgent.
During this pandemic, we've been taking action through several new programs aimed at gaining stronger data and insights, driving better education and awareness and increasing access to testing and health services for communities of color.
For instance, through a partnership with CareMessage, Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) and community clinics throughout the U.S. are receiving free access to a COVID-19 messaging platform to send critical information to more than 3 million Black, Latino and Native American patients in urban and rural areas. This platform is currently being used in 23 states, and more than 11 million COVID-19-related text messages have been sent to date.
Can you also speak about the work Johnson & Johnson has been doing when it comes to diversifying its clinical trials? How is this work being applied to COVID-19 research?
We have found that although Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, they are frequently underrepresented in clinical trials. In studies for potential oncology treatments, for example, Black Americans represent less than 5% of clinical trial participants. This leaves huge gaps in our understanding.
So with COVID-19, and other conditions, there are several specific actions we’re taking to increase enrollment of underrepresented populations, including everything from creating a detailed outreach plan for these communities to educating underserved populations across the U.S. about clinical trials and the importance of participating in them.
Our clinical trial sites are also being carefully selected to ensure we are better able to recruit and enroll diverse populations.
Diversifying clinical trial representation won’t be a quick or simple solution, but we're partnering on various fronts to help make it happen.
The company is also dedicated to helping address the high maternal mortality rate among women of color in the U.S. Can you tell us about this work, both on a policy and community level?
Every year, more than 700 women in the U.S. die during or shortly after childbirth, while thousands more experience severe complications that often lead to perinatal mood disorders. Sadly, Black women and women living in rural areas are most at risk.
Currently, we're very active in trying to help shape better government policy in the area of maternal health. We were excited to see the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act signed into law in December 2018, and have consistently weighed in to support the maternal health community’s appropriations priorities and numerous pieces of legislation that aim to address this crisis. In March of this year, Johnson & Johnson was the only company to endorse the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2020. This legislation contains nine bills that aim to fill gaps in our existing legislative framework to comprehensively address Black maternal health in America.
We’ve also convened the Coalition for Equitable Maternal Health, which will officially debut on Capitol Hill in the near future. The group is comprised of organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), March of Dimes and Black Mamas Matter, with the goal of uniting to advocate for the needs of America’s Black expectant mothers.
You recently participated in a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation panel about COVID-19. What were the biggest takeaways for you from that discussion?
I had two observations. First, COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of our healthcare system. We need stronger public health infrastructure so that all communities can thrive economically and socially. These three areas are all connected and provide the key to sustaining strong communities.
My second observation was the strong sense of urgency surrounding this moment. This is a pivotal time for our country and nations around the world. There is hunger among all quarters—government, the private sector and civil society—that says we cannot let this moment pass without pursuing profound and sustainable change.
You've had an admirable and lengthy career at Johnson & Johnson. How have you seen the company evolve as it pertains to helping drive diversity across the workforce, especially at the leadership level?
Thankfully, valuing diversity and inclusion has long been a part of the fabric of Johnson & Johnson. I’m always struck by the fact that the company employed female scientists as early as 1908, when most companies wouldn’t have entertained the idea.
During my career with the company, I’ve seen us continue to make great strides in this area. Most notably, we have built a global workforce that much better reflects the communities in which we operate. Our global Diversity & Inclusion strategy is providing a more consistent experience for underrepresented employees around the world, and we have trained our teams on how to live—and work—more inclusively. To date, more than 105,000 employees have completed unconscious bias training globally.
That being said, this is a perpetual journey—no company can ever be diverse or inclusive enough. We still need to do a better job of helping more people of color break into leadership positions. While this isn’t a problem that’s unique to Johnson & Johnson, it’s one we can’t turn a blind eye to either.
You have a personal anecdote that I found very moving about a list you started to keep when you joined the company. How that list has changed over time?
When I came to Johnson & Johnson as a young Black man fresh out of business school, I was ready to contribute, yet longed for a connection with and the guidance of people who looked like me. In the early days of my career, I kept a list of every Black director and vice president that I met. It was a very short one.
However, the confidence and belief that the company was trying to do the right thing kept me going most of the time. Today, that list is much longer.
Even with the imperfections that I still sometimes see in our organization, I am inspired by our commitment to constantly be better. And this commitment has only been strengthened through recent events, and I look forward to seeing my list continue to grow as we support systemic change both inside and outside the company.
Johnson & Johnson has been leading very candid discussions across the company in light of George Floyd’s death. Can you tell us more about this?
To me, what makes this company special is not that we’re perfect, but that we genuinely value justice and equality—and want to strive to become our best self.
This sometimes requires hard but honest conversations and painful soul searching, which we've been doing through a series of global Our Credo Conversations in which we’ve challenged all of our leaders and teams to host discussions about racial injustice.
These can feel daunting, but only through open dialogue can we build shared understanding and work to drive progress together.
The company recently announced it was committing $10 million to fight racism and injustice. How will this commitment be used?
There are so many individuals and organizations doing tremendous work to address issues of racial injustice, and we know that no single entity can solve this challenge alone. As a corporate leader, we have an important role to play in enabling these broader missions.
That’s why we’ve committed $10 million over three years to help fight racism in the U.S. This will begin with an extension of our support for the National Museum of African American History and Culture and its key initiatives, such as the new "Talking About Race” online program, which provides the tools and guidance needed for educators, parents and people committed to creating a more equitable world to have powerful dialogues about race.
In the coming months, we will continue to identify and announce additional partnerships to advance the cause of social justice.
Are there organizations that you feel are doing great work when it comes to fighting racism and injustice that people should consider researching themselves to help be better allies?
There are a number of really good organizations. One that people might consider looking into is the Southern Poverty Law Center. Their mission focuses on fighting hate and bigotry, and seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society.
Another is an organization that Johnson & Johnson has a long-standing partnership with, the National Urban League, which focuses on economic empowerment, equality and social justice.