Ally Westfield James joined Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) USA in October 2021 as the organization’s first director of strategy for diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI. Here, she discusses the principles of DEI and explains why they are so crucial to MSF’s medical humanitarian work, both in headquarters and in our projects in more than 70 countries around the world.
What led you to a career in DEI?
My expertise in DEI doesn’t necessarily come from formal training or a particular experience but from living my life as an intersectional person: A person of color, a woman, and an immigrant. All of these are the foundation of DEI, and my previous work experiences kind of crystallized that passion into a real purpose and direction.
I came to MSF after 14 years at INROADS, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing diverse youth in corporate America, where I was most recently the northeast regional director. Our work was to coach, train, and develop underrepresented and underserved young people of color and prepare them for corporate and community leadership, including internships at organizations where people like them might not otherwise be well represented.
In terms of MSF, I can bring those skills of coaching, empathy, and accessibility as we build structures and initiatives that grow trust and inclusivity. We want to build a culture of belonging, where people are heard, valued, and seen—where experiences are respected.
What are the biggest challenges you see ahead when it comes to implementing DEI?
The disasters MSF responds to—whether natural or human-made—are often temporary. Our teams respond and move on to the next crisis. But the world’s difficulties impact us emotionally, spiritually, and physically. And it’s often the ills we inflict on ourselves that are long-lasting—otherness, the inability to balance differences that fester and perpetuate.
MSF is like any very large humanitarian organization. It has to come to terms with its history. Oftentimes that history is steeped in inequity. What we want to do is reimagine the MSF we know and the work that we do.
The truth is most DEI initiatives fail. Simply hiring a DEI professional doesn’t get you to a more equitable environment, much like hiring an accountant won’t by itself fix all your financial woes. What we have to do—and what we’re doing at MSF-USA right now—is be very intentional. This work is intentional, and we have to make sure we are being very clear about what the goals are. The principles of DEI and the responsibility of implementing them can’t reside with just one person—building a culture of inclusion means swimming upstream together, working to build consensus and agreement not only about where we are but about where we’re going.
Why should MSF supporters care about diversity, equity, and inclusion?
The fact that they support our work of bringing healthcare to the people who need it most, regardless of who or where they are, means that they want a more equitable, diverse, inclusive world. And they want to know that the money they’re donating is going to be put to good and ethical use—not just in our humanitarian projects but in our headquarters as well. It’s my job to help make sure our house is in order and that we’re living up to our principles, for both our supporters and our patients around the world.