Campus & Community

Dr. Ena Williams Champions Workplace Diversity in Dotson Bridge and Mentoring Program Lectureship Event

Dr. Ena Williams at the Dotson Bridge and Mentoring Program Lectureship Event. Photograph by Ashley Purvis.
Dr. Ena Williams at the Dotson Bridge and Mentoring Program Lectureship Event. Photo credit: Ashley Purvis.

“We all want to belong, and we have a right to belong,. And what you are doing through the Dotson Program is the embodiment of equity.”

On February 29, the Dotson Bridge and Mentoring Program, directed by Associate Professor of Practice LaDonna Christian, hosted a Lectureship Event with Dr. Ena Williams. Her lecture, entitled, “Experiences of Racial and Ethnic Minority Nurses: Our Role in Advancing Workforce Diversity,” identified workplace biases and underscored the need for mentorship, racial equity, and organizational change.

“I want to start by congratulating you all at Simmons University for this amazing work. The Dotson Bridge and Mentoring Program is an important investment that you have made in the lives of students — and particularly underrepresented students — in our nursing workforce,” remarked Dr. Ena Williams at the beginning of her February 29 Dotson lectureship event.

Williams is the first African American Chief Nursing Officer at Yale New Haven Hospital (New Haven, CT). She began her career in her native country of Jamaica and immigrated to the United States in 1991. Williams has held numerous leadership positions and will assume the role of President of the American Organization for Nursing Leadership in 2026. “[Throughout my career], I have helped to create an environment in which nurses can thrive and have a voice in their own practice,” she said.

In her lecture, “Experiences of Racial and Ethnic Minority Nurses: Our Role in Advancing Workforce Diversity,” Williams recounted her personal journey navigating the nursing profession as an immigrant and woman of color. She also presented key findings from her dissertation, which investigates systemic racism and barriers to advancement that racial and ethnic minorities experience within the nursing profession. “I know that many of you are still students, but I think that this project will resonate with you. And even if you are not a racial or ethnic minority, you may find yourselves here, because there is a role for all of us in this journey.”

Jamaican Roots

Williams was born, raised, and trained in Jamaica. She believes that being part of a large family instilled in her important and transferable skills. “As the second child of many siblings, I learned conflict resolution and negotiation skills, and how to manage large audiences,” she recalled.

Starting at age five, Williams would sing with her family members. “We were like the von Trapp family from The Sound of Music. . . And now I realize that these experiences gave me the ability to perform in front of an audience, have confidence, and muster the courage to speak up,” she said.

The spiritual side of Williams’ life is of paramount importance to her. She was raised within the Pentecostal tradition and her husband Leonard is a retired hospital chaplain. Being a person of faith informs all aspects of Williams’ work, play, and service to her community. Moreover, her spirituality instills in her a sense of equilibrium that balances the competing demands of work and family. “Even if you are not religious, you must have a belief system that is bigger than you,” she advised.

Researching Race-Based Bias

“Historically, minority nurses have been looking for a place to belong,” said Williams. “And even today, racial and ethnic minorities nurses remain underrepresented.” In her lecture, Williams discussed historical precedents to the racial and ethnic discrimination of nurses that lingers today. For decades, Black nurses were barred from enrolling in nursing schools in the United States. When Black nurses did eventually receive training, they had to work in hospital settings for non-white individuals. In 1908, Martha Minerva Franklin, Mary Eliza Mahoney, and Adah Belle Samuels Thoms formed the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. It was not until 1972 that the American Nurses Association allowed Black nurses to participate.

“Transitioning from Jamaica to the U.S., I started to realize that certain things would happen to me because of the color of my skin. And that was a new phenomenon to me.” Working in the healthcare industry, Williams observed an overall attitude that people like her (i.e., individuals of color) should not get promotions. On several occasions, she was mistaken for the hospital’s housekeeping staff.

These experiences signified to Williams that people harbor biases, even unconscious ones. As Williams explained, an unconscious bias is a type of framing or preconditioned thinking that one applies to other persons or groups. An explicit bias is blatant and direct (Williams calls this a microaggression). Biases are often based on race, gender, ability, and culture.

Williams’ encounter with workplace biases galvanized her doctoral research. She interviewed 17 nurse executives throughout the U.S. who identify as racial and ethnic minorities. Qualitative research, storytelling, and intersectionality comprised her methodology and conceptual frameworks.

As the interviewees revealed, they faced discrimination and hardships because of their racial and ethnic backgrounds. They shared what helped them achieve their present success as well as the struggles and pain along the way. Even though the research subjects are senior professionals, Williams suggests that their extraordinary stories can speak to nurses at any stage of their careers.

Overcoming Obstacles

One of Williams’ key findings is that senior nurses of color struggled with a sense of inclusion and merit. “They talked about being the first and only [i.e., they had no role models who looked like them]. They reported performance pressures, such as that they had to perform two to three times better than everybody else to receive the same reward or promotion. As racial and ethnic minorities, these nurses felt like they did not belong.”

Williams’ research underscores the importance of role models. “When you see someone doing something, then you can believe in yourself. . . . How can you dream about what you want to be if you cannot see it?” asked Williams. “What you are doing through the Dotson Program is so critical, because you are helping them [i.e., minority nurses in training] navigate this difficult terrain.”

Creating Organizational Change

“Organizations must take social responsibility by creating social and organizational change, and that is what you are through the Dotson Program at Simmons,” said Williams. “This is how we advance racial and ethnic minorities in the workforce.”

Williams provided several strategies to mitigate unconscious bias. “Learn that it exists and all of us have it. We should hold each other accountable and call one another out. Teach students about unconscious bias. Know that diversity matters; it matters in our workforce and healthcare system, and improves outcomes for patients.”

In her conclusion, Williams articulated the difference between equality and equity. “Equality means that you give everybody the same thing. But everybody does not need the same thing. . . . Equity means that we meet the needs of people where they are.” As Williams elaborated, minority students need different resources than the majority. “Since the world has imposed markers of difference onto them, we must counter that by providing them with different things to elevate them,” she explained.

“We all want to belong, and we have a right to belong,” said Williams. “And what you are doing through the Dotson Program is the embodiment of equity.”

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Kathryn Dickason