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2023 HSR&D/QUERI National Conference Abstract

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5009 — Engaging All Veterans: My Experience with the Multi-Veteran Engagement Group Meetings to Improve Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in VA Research

Lead/Presenter: April Schmidt
All Authors: LaChappelle K (Pain Research, Informatics, Multi-morbidities, and Education Center-West Haven) Wendleton, L (Seattle-Denver COIN) Brown KM (Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion-Philadelphia) Stewart Steffensmeier KR (Center for Access and Delivery Research and Evaluation-Iowa City)

Objectives:
To encourage increased engagement with Veterans to address diversity, equity, and inclusion in VA research by sharing my experience as a Veteran representing Iowa City during multi-Veteran Engagement Group (VEG) meetings.

Methods:
Representatives from five VEGs across the nation came together to have a facilitated, open conversation from different viewpoints regarding experiences, challenges, and potential solutions for addressing some of the ways we can increase inclusivity in VA Research and speak openly about anti-racism and equity. I joined this effort because I have friends and family of color, and I wanted to learn in a diverse group to build deeper and better relationships with them. I am also concerned about the general population of researchers I am exposed to being predominantly White. There is not much diversity to represent the Veteran populations being served.

Results:
As a White woman of Native American descent, I made myself vulnerable and spoke from my own experience to hopefully help other Veterans. During the first national VEG, I mistakenly referred to someone's racial background with a term that offended them ("Hispanic"). The Veteran told me they'd prefer to be called a "person of color." That exchange spurred the group into a broader conversation about the personal nature of being labeled.

Implications:
There were two multi-VEG meetings and five meetings with Veteran engagement liaisons representing VEGs from Iowa City, Philadelphia, West Haven, Denver, and Portland (OR). Thirteen Veterans attended one or more multi-VEG meetings. Through participation, I learned that it is not the responsibility of people of color to explain race and racism. Talking about race is complex and comfort may vary by individual, geography, and background. The multi-VEG meeting concluded that change had to start locally. I brought what I learned to the CADRE VEP in Iowa City. The CADRE VEP believe that change has to start from the top down at our VA, by which we mean increasing diversity among researchers, administrators, and staff. Other ideas include recruiting younger Veterans to get people involved in research at an earlier point in their careers, such as students. Our liaison continues to reach out to the Iowa Veteran Education, Transition and Support (IVETS) Office located at the University of Iowa to recruit student Veterans.

Impacts:
The meetings were the first steps necessary to bring together a nationally diverse group of Veterans to ultimately push researchers to think about diversity, equity, and inclusion in their projects. For our local VEP, it was the step necessary for us to identify hiring of diverse researchers, administrators, and staff as something to improve for our VA. We are only at the beginning.