How CarePlus NJ shifted gears from staff questions to DEI accountability

Following George Floyd’s 2020 murder in police custody, Brigitte Johnson said her nonprofit organization had a steady stream of staff emails asking what their position was.

Johnson, who was named CEO and president of Paramus-based mental health service provider CarePlus NJ in January, said its immediate response was that it was working on a statement, adding the air-quotes herself.

And it did put out a statement. She knew that wouldn’t be enough.

“People in our staff said they were feeling anxious and upset,” she said. “They wanted to know where we stood. … From then on, the staff really wanted and demanded more.”

CarePlus NJ is one of the many organizations that — responding to the momentum built by Black Lives Matter, transgender rights and other movements — has had a surge of interest among employees in instances of injustice in the U.S. And, like other organizations, it’s tried to support that interest with diversity, equity & inclusion initiatives across all ranks of its organization.

Johnson has been central in that transformation. She spearheaded the launch of CarePlus NJ’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Action, or IDEA, Committee, which started with staff-to-staff support groups in 2020.

A year into it, Johnson said there was a realization that this mostly staff-driven initiative had to reach higher rungs of the organization’s leadership ladder.

Adding ‘B’ to DEI

CarePlus NJ is one of the many organizations keen on recasting the abbreviation “DEI” as “DEIB.” And, for Brigitte Johnson and her team, there’s a lot of significance contained in that one-letter addition.

Touted first by human resources consultants and national media op-eds, the idea of adding “belonging” to diversity, equity & inclusion initiatives has been gaining steam among businesses and nonprofit agencies.

This extra element is meant to address what happens after an organization has created a diverse team … that then actually has to work together as a cohesive unit where everyone feels the same sense of belonging. That’s seen as a difference-maker in keeping employees comfortable.

“From an HR perspective, we’ve felt strongly about incorporating DEIB policy into our hiring, retention and on-boarding practices,” Johnson said. “We’re also incorporating it through our management track.”

“As we were giving reports to the board on the activities of the committee, one of our board members said something that, to me, was profound: ‘We stand a chance of having the staff in their committee work pass the board by.’” she said.

The organization, which serves a population of about 10,000 North Jersey residents across 80 programs, has since last year been looking to incorporate DEI accountability more thoroughly into its leadership board’s process.

As a mental health agency addressing issues that affect minorities who have faced barriers to care — as well as those disproportionately affected by social determinants of health that researchers find can lead to a wide array of mental and physical health problems — Johnson said it has a responsibility to get involved with the community when it comes to DEI, too.

“What I tell people is, sometimes, we think of the DEI space as just a Black-white issue, and it’s so much bigger than that,” she said. “For us, we’re looking at health and equities and looking at how we can participate and be a part of health equity. We’re looking at who we’re serving, who’s the staff providing services and what services are provided.”

Theirs and other agencies, particularly those in the mental health space, have quickly answered the demand for these initiatives, Johnson added.

The challenge now, she said, is keeping it going strong.

“How do you continue it?” she said. “How do we make this more than a moment that comes out of something tragic occurring? How do we embed it into everyday practice? I think all agencies are trying to work on that.”