Dwayne Steward: A People-Oriented Advocate Helping Marginalized Communities Get Access to Healthcare

The 10 Most Influential HR Executives of the Year 2022

As the Chief People and Culture Officer at Equitas Health, Dwayne Steward believes that HR should be about the people, and he carried his focus on being people-oriented throughout his entire career.

Dwayne is a writer, activist, and speaker, and at any given time, he uses the majority of his skills for one of these activities. As a journalist with several years of reporting and editing experience for various publications, he can adapt to any writing style at any type of publication.

Dwayne has a background in youth mentoring, AIDS advocacy/research, and educating on all aspects of LGBTQ+ healthcare. He also collaborates with non-profits and corporate entities to create inclusive communities and dismantle institutional oppression from a social justice standpoint.

Before joining Equitas Health, Dwayne started his career in journalism and worked for several years as a newspaper reporter, before he transitioned to working in public health.

“I didn’t want to just write about the problems of our world. I wanted to also do something about it. And then as I got deeper into the profession, my focused shifted to empowering the people that serve, so our communities receive the best services possible,” he recalls.

Moving the agency forward in a people-first direction

Before Equitas Health appointed Dwayne as Interim Chief People and Culture Officer, in November 2021, he served as the Senior Director of Prevention Programs.

In this capacity, he developed their HIV prevention strategy to address ongoing rates of HIV infection in Ohio, including disproportionate rates of HIV infection among youth, racial/ethnic minorities, and transgender and gender nonconforming communities of color.

Dwayne also solidified the organization’s statewide footprint as a harm reduction leader and invocator and served as an active member and leader within Ohio’s LGBTQ+ community.

Dwayne has a background in creating sustainable safe spaces for marginalized communities. He observes that many of the staff and patients at Equitas Health identify with oppressed communities, so it is important for equity to be the foundation of their work, internally and externally, for the company to be successful.

“I have married my community mobilizing experience with my passion for people and my public health administration expertise, in the Chief People and Culture role, to assist with moving the agency forward in a people-first direction,” he elaborates.

Defining himself as an Advocate, Dwayne manages the Officer of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Human Resources, and the Equitas Health Institute.

“Every day is different, which is something I enjoy. I could go from working on a new policy that supports staff, to overseeing the plans for our next Transforming Care Conference, to discussions about new contracts with vendors for increased benefits for our employees. However, no matter the task, the focus always comes back to helping our people thrive,” he says.

“We must govern from the margins if we are going to be successful at equity. When you create a policy or program that is accessible to the most marginalized among us, you create a policy or program that is accessible to all of us.” – Dwayne Steward

Driving innovation to return profits to the people

When Dwayne stepped into the role of Chief People and Culture Officer after already being at the agency in a Director role for three years, he modernized and innovated one of the agency’s largest departments and believed that he could do the same for the agency as a whole.

“I believed in the mission of the agency, and I believed that the communities it served deserved the best. So, I embarked on a goal to stabilize the agency and help move it towards sustainable innovation,” he remarks.

In the first nine months in his new role at Equitas Health, Dwayne launched several new people-first initiatives, including launching a pay equity study that resulted in a $2.5 million increase in staff salaries, the initiation of unprecedented additional PTO, and the launch of the agency’s first Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

In fact, he regards this as his greatest achievement, and a proud moment as a successful leader. “The coordination and implementation of the pay equity study was a tremendous success that I’m very proud of. For the first time in the agency’s history, a third of the agency’s profits went directly to the pockets of the people. It did a lot to show our staff that we valued them,” Dwayne observes.

Dwayne believes the algorithm for success is integration plus innovation equals excellence, especially in public health.

“When all parties are in collaboration, communicating effectively, and integrating standardized practice across disciplines, with a focus on innovative solutions, the outcome becomes an optimal product or service for communities in the most need. Success isn’t possible without innovative, strategic, and sustainable collaboration,” he remarks.

Dwayne points out that Equitas Health is in a crucial moment of transition, and he truly believes that the work they’re doing now will go on to define the DNA of the agency for the next several decades.

“I plan to do what I can to strengthen our people-first initiatives and keep our eye towards innovation, so that we can become the best community health center for the people we serve,” he affirms.

“Integration plus innovation will always equal excellence. You cannot have success without collaboration.” – Dwayne Steward

Ensuring healthcare for marginalized communities

Equitas Health is a regional nonprofit community healthcare system that was founded in 1984. It is one of the largest LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS serving healthcare organizations in the United States and is a federally designated Community Health Center.

Equitas Health, which has 21 offices in 13 cities, serves tens of thousands of patients each year in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia through patient-centered, integrated, and cutting-edge services, such as primary and specialized medical care, pharmacy, dentistry, behavioral health, HIV/STI treatment and prevention, PrEP/PEP, Ryan White/HIV case management, care navigation, advocacy, and other community health initiatives.

Dwayne notes that Equitas Health is a community health center focused on providing healthcare to anyone seeking a welcoming healthcare home. They are the leader in inclusive healthcare and have created a patient-centered model that is used by many across the Ohio region.

The Equitas Health Pharmacy is a critical component of the health center’s comprehensive care and business models, with 100% of profits reinvested in the organization’s programs and services. Equitas Health operates pharmacies in Ohio and Texas that serve patients. The organization also houses the Equitas Health Institute and the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO).

The Equitas Health Pharmacy is a critical component of the health center’s comprehensive care and business models, with 100% of profits reinvested in the organization’s programs and services. Equitas Health operates pharmacies in Ohio and Texas that serve patients. The organization has two divisions: the Equitas Health Institute and the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO).

“All proceeds from our pharmacies are invested back into all of our programs and services, so that everyone can be served at our medical centers, regardless of their ability to pay,” says Dwayne. “We also house The Equitas Health Institute, our research and education center that provides training to providers nationally, and hosts the Transforming Care Conference, one of the largest annual LGBTQ health conference in the Midwest.”

Investing in D&I to build a sustainable culture

When Dwayne took on the role of Chief People and Culture Officer at Equitas Health, he immediately decided to invest in D&I and grow their efforts from one FTE to a department of five.

“If D&I is to be the fabric of our culture, it must be institutionalized across everything we do. And in order for that to be the case, you must invest in its impact. Culture only changes if you take the time to be strategically intentional about its sustainability,” he maintains.

Dwayne believes that HR should be about the people and he has been people-oriented his entire career.

“In this new era of HR, it will be important to shift the narrative of HR as the protector of the company to being the protector of its people. Being people-first has been researched extensively and is scientifically proven to produce positive results. It’s time all companies adopt this philosophy of being,” he recommends.

“Don’t blame people, blame the process. People are too often set up to fail because of outdated processes. Changing the process changes the culture.” – Dwayne Steward

Inspiration breeds inspiration

Dwayne maintains that it is his husband, family, and community that keeps him grounded. “I couldn’t do any of this work without them. The communities we serve keep me motivated.”

He remarks that seeing examples every day, of how they are creating safe spaces for people to receive healthcare, is the greatest motivator to keep going. “It’s important to make sure why you do this work, if visible to your staff. Inspiration breeds inspiration,” Dwayne observes.

He also recalls that early in his career, he took a linear, passive approach to advancement, and wasn’t seeing much result, which made him feel as if he had plateaued. But as soon as he started taking professional risks and taking advantage of every opportunity that came his way, his career skyrocketed forward in ways that he didn’t think possible.

With this insight, here’s Dwayne’s parting advice to aspiring business leaders: “It’s not enough for opportunities to knock. You have to walk through the door. Trust in your skills. Bet on yourself. They may be clichés, but once you lean into what you’re most confident about, the sky is the limit.”