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EVS supervisor ‘happy to teach’ as a Black leader in healthcare

Posted Feb 28th, 2024

We are Niagara Health is a series of stories that celebrates the incredible people working and volunteering in our organization and how they make a difference in the lives of patients and coworkers every day.

Andre Holness stands in a hospital hallway

Andre Holness, Environmental Services and Patient Transport Supervisor for the Welland and Port Colborne hospitals, strives to create an environment where his team can ask and talk about anything, from work to more personal topics.

Andre Holness wasn’t thinking about changing employers when he applied for an Environmental Services (EVS) supervisor job at Niagara Health three years ago.

He was working for a large hospital in the GTA and was focused on climbing the ladder there. If he got an interview at Niagara Health, that would help him prepare for when the opportunity arose in the Big Smoke.

Holness not only got an interview, he got the job as EVS and Patient Transport Supervisor at the St. Catharines Hospital. And he didn’t hesitate to accept the position because coming to Niagara Health meant Holness, who now works at the Welland Hospital, could be the kind of leader he’s wanted to be and feels is needed in healthcare.

“As a Black person at my previous employer, I felt we didn’t get as much support. Being a visible minority, I was always left in the background or behind the scenes,” Holness says. “I’ve always wanted to be a presence. You can come to me with anything, and I’ll do my best to help.”

That could be a question about how to operate the ride-on floor scrubbers that look like mini-Zambonis; or how to ensure patients have a smooth transition during transport; or even the more personal questions, like what’s the significance of the durag, the satiny black cloth he wears to work when his hair is braided?

He likened it to how some people wear a baseball cap but those don’t fit him well. His durag is also a sign of respect for the person who meticulously braided his hair, protecting his cornrows from becoming messy or frayed during a day’s work on healthcare’s frontlines.

“When my coworkers and friends ask questions, I always answer. It’s for education purposes. They want to learn more and I’m happy to teach them,” Holness says.

“When my coworkers and friends ask questions, I always answer. It’s for education purposes. They want to learn more and I’m happy to teach them."

Still, there are moments that “happen every so often” when he realizes there are some who still have much to learn. Holness knows them by their body language or the microaggressions he experiences in their presence. Microaggressions are words or actions, sometimes done unintentionally or without awareness, that express prejudice toward socially marginalized groups.

It’s the person who crosses the street to avoid Holness or who won’t make eye contact when he tries to say hi in passing. It’s the woman on the elevator, who pulled down her sleeves to cover her jewelry when the doors opened and Holness stepped on.

It hurts, he says, especially because he’s the person who will go out of his way to be the bright spot in someone’s day by saying hello.

“Who knows? Maybe that person needed a smile that day? That’s why I brought that culture to our team, seeing how people are doing. Are they having a good day, a bad day. It’s reading their body language and letting each other know we’re here,” Holness says.

Those like the woman on the elevator “judge on their own basis, rather than engaging and talking and learning,” he adds.

That’s why he says he’s grateful Niagara Health celebrates Black History Month in February, and marks other important occasions for equity-deserving groups, including Pride Month in June and Indigenous Truth and Reconciliation Month in September -- although there’s no need to wait for these occasions to learn, he says.

Nationally, this year’s theme for Black History Month is Black Excellence: A Heritage to Celebrate; a Future to Build. In an ongoing commitment to inclusion, equity and understanding at Niagara Health, the DEI committee has selected the theme of Celebrating Black History, Every Day for the organization, with a focus on removing the perception that Black history is somehow separate from collective Canadian history.

“Every month is Black History Month. There’s no time of not learning anything to do with Black history. If you come across it, listen and absorb. Read about it some more. There’s stuff I don’t know about Black history and I’m trying to take in as much as I can,” Holness says.

“Everything they do here at Niagara Health and the way they go about doing it is above and beyond what I see at most places,” he adds.

While the impact of Niagara Health’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, neither has Holness’s impact on the organization as a Black leader. One February afternoon at the St. Catharines hospital, EVS staff greet him with smiles, hugs and honorifics like “the son I never had.”

Holness was also part of the 400-strong EVS team that received the Extraordinary Team Award during the 2022 Awards of Excellence for their efforts as the first line of defence against COVID-19 during the height of the pandemic.

That’s why he came for the interview experience but plans to stay at Niagara Health to see where his career trajectory takes him.

“Niagara Health is home. Everyone knows each other; it’s coworkers helping one another to get things done,” he says. “I doubt that I’ll be going anywhere.”

Niagara Health System