2022 Unsung Hero 

Image with caption: Jacqueline Hankins Berry

Hankins Berry: 'Who knows what we can accomplish?' by John Keenan, UNMC strategic communications | January 21, 2022 (See Hankins Berry's award speech)

Jacqueline Hankins Berry joined the Munroe-Meyer Institute nine years ago as an office associate in the department of developmental pediatrics. From the start, she loved it — working with people, particularly those from underserved communities, to navigate the system and access health care.

"Because that’s where the biggest problem is," she said. "People of color don’t know where to start. It’s almost as if they believe help is for everyone but them. This was an opportunity for me to be a resource for my community."

On Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Hankins Berry — now part of the MMI community engagement team — was named the inaugural Unsung Hero Award winner. The award honors an individual at UNMC and Nebraska Medicine who serves others in their workplace or the community, provides culturally competent care for the community and is actively involved in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Following the death of George Floyd in May 2020, Hankins Berry saw a role for herself as MMI grappled with the implications of Floyd’s death, as well as the national reaction to it and the underlying, institutional and societal issues that the reaction had helped illuminate. 

"I saw that my voice could be greater," she said. "As a part of an underrepresented community here at MMI and UNMC, I saw that I could be more.

"I’ve experienced the racist jokes; I’ve experienced the ‘your people’ conversations, here at UNMC," she said. "For a long time, you let it go. You don’t say anything because you are alone, and you’re afraid of what could happen if you speak up. But then, as you become a leader, you have to speak up. I have to speak up."

As she did, and with support from MMI Director Karoly Mirnics, MD, PhD, and director of community engagement Melonie Welsh, Hankins Berry saw her role expanding — not just at MMI but throughout the med center.

"It’s not about your title or your level here; you can be more than that," she said. "What’s great about UNMC is the space that they allow you to grow — there are so many opportunities to make a difference, if you want them."

She has seized the opportunities. At MMI and throughout the med center, Hankins Berry has carved out a niche much larger than her official position. She serves as co-chair of MMI’s diversity, equity and inclusion council; she participates in the planning for UNMC’s Black History Month observances; she is a facilitator in the Conversations for Inclusive Excellence series created by UNMC Assistant Vice Chancellor of Inclusion Sheritta Strong, MD, whom Hankins Berry calls a mentor.

"I’ve had the great pleasure of learning and being a part of a lot of the diversity work that is being initiated across the campus," she said. "The UNMC Inclusion Office has been a great resource for MMI. If people attend the Inclusive Excellence conversations, they will see we’re having these open dialogues. And sometimes those are hard conversations, but we’re having them."

Her goals for the future include advocating for a full-time DEI position at MMI and helping the med center in its efforts to recruit more diverse students, faculty and staff.

"That is a universal goal," she said. "If we recruit people with diverse backgrounds, then we get diverse thinking. And with that comes innovation and everything becomes bigger and better.

"People want to feel like they belong, and I want to create an environment with a sense of belonging, where people see people who look like them."

Change does’t happen overnight, Hankins Berry said, and teamwork is required for success.

"We have to be the change agents," she said. "That’s everyone’s responsibility. We’re headed in the right direction, but effort is required. It would be easy to burn out — but that’s when you tag someone else in. It takes everyone’s efforts and strengths. And if we act as a team, who knows what we can accomplish?"