Meet Chatham County Public Health Department’s First DEI Officer

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Brenda Clegg discusses policy and perspective as Chatham County Public Health Department’s first diversity, equity and inclusion officer

Brenda Clegg, Chatham County Health Department's DEI officer

By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photo by John Michael Simpson

Brenda Clegg was born in Sanford and was 5 years old when her family moved to Queens, New York. She earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from Rutgers University in New Jersey and a second bachelor’s degree from New York Institute of Technology in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on life sciences. She began her human resources career as the New York Metropolitan Amateur Athletic Union’s district sport director, spending more than 10 years in the position. Afterward, Brenda took on roles n Pennsylvania to improve internal business functions, including cultural sensitivity training for staff and enhancing external community engagement. Brenda, the youngest of five siblings, returned to Sanford in 2015 to care for her late father, Alfred Frank Clegg, for two years. On July 5, Brenda became Chatham County Public Health Department’s first diversity, equity and inclusion officer. Her adult son, Justin Brown, and grandson, 7, live in Sanford, while her adult daughter, Tahvia Brown, is in New York.

What do you think prepared you for this job?

I believe my life experiences prepared me for this job. … I remember my [maternal] grandmother, a very proud woman, here in North Carolina, and how she would talk to me and tell me she had great expectations for me. … And so in the back of my mind, everything I did, I always wanted to make my grandmother proud of me. But then going to New York, the neighborhood we moved into was a middle-class, predominantly African American neighborhood. As a matter of fact, the family next door to me was from Haiti. We were African American from North Carolina. The family on the other side was from Jamaica. My mom didn’t want me to go to school in that neighborhood. … She wanted [me] to have education with children [who] did not necessarily look like [me]. …My mom put me in school in Douglaston-Little Neck [a different neighborhood in Queens]. I can go back and look at my elementary school pictures, and there were only a handful of Black kids in the class and everyone else was Caucasian. Why did my mom do that? Why was that so important to her to do that? Well, now I understand that we should be interacting with people who don’t look like [us]. They need to understand you, and you need to understand them. So that is what I grew up around. And you know, New York is a melting pot. Queens is a melting pot. And I think all of that gave me a different perspective.

What work did you do before your current position?

Before I came here, I was doing DEI training, but I also was in staffing, business development and sales. [I was] going into companies from Lumberton to Smithville, talking to them about employment, job culture, company culture and how that affects their turnover rates. Also, I still am the [volunteer] DEI director for the Society for Human Resource Management, the North Carolina council. So I’m going out talking, doing training and providing resources to HR professionals across the state of North Carolina on DEI and how best to navigate making their company more equitable, more inclusive.

What do you see as the priorities for Chatham County from your perspective?

Being the first one means there’s a lot for me to do and figure out because no one else has done the job before. I have to try to build a road map. And I have to understand there have been conversations that have gone on in the past, and [that] people have different perspectives and ideas of what diversity, equity [and] inclusion means. So it’s my job to make this as plain yet nonthreatening [as possible] and allow people to understand that we don’t want anyone to necessarily change – we want them to have a shift in their perspective and [in the] way they engage other people and how they perceive other people and build upon the fact that we all have biases. But understand that it’s not about having a bias; it’s about how you manage the bias and how you allow it to affect not only how you interact in the workplace, but also within the community as well.

What are some of the expectations from the health department?

It’s a leadership role with the strategic direction, expertise and guidance to advance the initiatives within the health department. Internally, the position is focused on integrating DEI principles into policies, practices, services and culture. … And then externally, I am responsible for building relationships with the members in the community and community partners, with the focus on marginalized communities and looking at health equity and how we play a role in making sure everyone has equal and equitable access to health [care services]. It’s public health, so it should be open to anyone.

How are you able to measure progress?

One way is by looking at your retention [of employees]. Are we keeping people? Also, [we want to do] additional surveys to see how, culturally, things are changing. Are you having better conversations?

What about the clients or patients outside of the department itself?

On an airplane, they tell you when the oxygen mask falls out that before you try to help the person next to you or the child with you, put the mask on for yourself [first]. That’s what we’re doing now. We first have to make sure we’re healthy, and we can take care of ourselves. We want to make sure we’re being sympathetic, empathetic, we’re being mindful, respectful. I believe the training and everything we’ll do will build upon one another, and it will take effect so our interactions and our daily work, our interactions with the public is going to be better. … I don’t expect things to shift immediately. … Yes, there is history and history within the United States, the systemic things that have gone on are a tragedy. Let’s acknowledge them. And then let’s say, “How do we do better?”

Will you eventually reach out to the community to find out what’s working and what’s not working? What comes after all that?

I think it’s just about ongoing education, continuing education, not just for the department, but also for our community partners. You know, are they open and interested in DEI training? Are they interested in having conversations around that? Do they understand what DEI is? Because diversity is not all just about race. So many times people think it’s Black versus white, and it’s not – it’s not that at all. And so, being able to have those conversations and understanding so we can build community, a stronger community.

Brenda Clegg, Chatham County Public Health Department’s DEI officer.

Lightning Round

Favorite local shop: French Connections. “They have so many African fabrics, artwork and jewelry!”

Favorite color: Blue

Favorite local eateries: Mi Cancun and the Chatham Marketplace co-op (“They have the best sushi and carrot-ginger soup!”)

Favorite sports teams: Carolina Panthers and New York Giants

Favorite activities: Travel and art appreciation

Favorite place to visit: Nassau, Bahamas

Favorite book: “The Wake of the Wind” by J. California Cooper. The book is about generational challenges African Americans have had to endure. “I felt every emotion while reading the book: anger, fear, sadness, suspense, joy, pride, courage and a peace of mind.”

Favorite quote: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived; it is what difference we have made in the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead,” by Nelson Mandela.

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Anna-Rhesa Versola

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