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Airman Spotlight: Readiness relies on broken barriers

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Col. Felicia Burks, Chief, Diversity and Inclusion Division, Office of the Air Force Surgeon General spoke with Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs about breaking barriers and how to help cultivate a more inclusive future. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- In celebration of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, Col. Felicia Burks, Chief, Diversity and Inclusion Division (SG1V), Office of the Air Force Surgeon General, shares her dedication to cultivating a culture of diversity and inclusion throughout the Air Force Medical Service, and how she plans to ensure tomorrow’s leaders are offered all the opportunities to thrive.

While 2020 was a history-making year in every sense of the word, it has been a monumental one for black women, and for everyone celebrating the chance for women to put a few more cracks in the proverbial glass ceiling. But while this past year served up some highs, it will undoubtedly be known for some of the lowest lows. One such low being the social unrest in response to George Floyd’s death in June 2020. This incident prompted the country to take a deeper look at systems of oppression we inadvertently take part in and reexamine our responsibility in bringing about substantial change to move forward.

It was in response to these national events that the Air Force Surgeon General set up a Diversity and Inclusion division in August 2020 with the goal of cultivating a more equitable foundation of inclusion within the AFMS.

Burks spoke with the Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs to answer some questions about how her experiences have developed her into the leader she is today, and the importance of fostering conversations about diversity and inclusion in order to eliminate barriers and precipitate change.

Why is being part of the Diversity and Inclusion division important to you and your fellow Airmen?

I come from humble beginnings. I grew up in a single-parent home until the age of 10 in rural Alabama. I remember being surrounded by love, but not always surrounded by opportunity. I had to figure things out the hard way since I did not have anyone in my life at the time who could guide me and help me achieve what I wanted. I actually went to a neighbor who was a sophomore at a local college with the hopes that they could help me figure out how to apply to college.

That’s the thing about opportunity, even if you are surrounded by it, if you’re not in a position to know about it, it does you no good. It’s hard to say we all have the same opportunities when some people aren’t even aware of those opportunities in the first place. We make assumptions that everyone knows as much as we do, but it’s not true. You don’t know what you don’t know.

This is what drives my dedication to this division. I have come to understand the importance of identifying and eliminating barriers that may keep deserving Airmen from opportunities they would otherwise excel in. I bring this understanding with me into all my leadership positions and roles.

As Black History Month has recently led into Women’s History Month, can you tell me what these occasions mean to you?

We should celebrate them today and every day by honoring the achievements of those who have paved the way before me, who broke barriers, and who changed the world for so many of us. It also makes me think about the history we still have yet to make.

I’m proud that we have the first female Air Force Surgeon General, so we are off to a good start in empowering the next generation of leadership.

Why is diversity so important to the Air Force medical mission?

Diversity in health care has measurable benefits. A medical force that doesn’t reflect the diversity of those for which it provides care risks limiting its capabilities. Health disparities and attitudes towards health care vary among different groups. Diversity among medics can help dismantle barriers and perceptions Airmen experience about seeking care, as well as stymie the effects of implicit bias in a system. This contributes to a greater quality of care for all and strengthens readiness.

When changing the culture of an organization, this change often occurs as more of a process than occurring overnight. In this process, how do we measure success or failure?

We should measure success by growth and the data. We all have unique stories and experiences, and sharing them is foundational to growth. We should be sharing our commitment to inclusion through words and actions, and encouraging others to share their stories on the value of diversity.

Within growth, we must become comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations. Empower those around you to feel comfortable speaking up, and to be brave in pointing out to others when you feel that they are acting on inaccurate assumptions. Centering diversity and inclusion ensures that all Airmen’s voices are not only heard, but valued.

We could only fail if we stop having the conversations that move us forward. I am committed to keeping these conversations going and empowering people to continue speaking up.

The data will help us measure desired outcomes and from there shape better opportunities.

What advice can you share with AFMS leaders that are looking for ways to increase inclusivity in their ranks?

I would advise leaders that when you’re considering individuals for opportunities, to resist making judgments based solely on what a person’s background looks like. Don’t make assumptions about what opportunities someone did or didn’t have available to them. Those “on paper” qualifications don’t give the full picture of how smart or capable someone is, nor can it give you an adequate understanding of their passion or desire to succeed. Make a point to assess some of your expectations or blind spots, and give someone the chance to impress you.

Gaining a better understanding of your own leadership qualities is very important, so that you can continue evolving and becoming your best self. Leadership and growth are enduring.

If we really want to create a more equitable future, we have to start by taking ownership of our environments. We have to usher in positive changes ourselves, instead of waiting for them to be mandated.

What you work for should reflect what you stand for.

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