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Cincinnati health care leader Karen Bankston 'inspires anyone, no matter who you are'

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Posted at 5:00 AM, May 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-11 18:10:32-04

Throughout 2021, WCPO’s Tanya O’Rourke will introduce you to nine influential women breaking glass ceilings or asserting their influence to make the Tri-State a better place to live.

CINCINNATI — When Karen Bankston arrived at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in 1990, she was introduced to the office as our new African-American administrator. Repeatedly. It was a point of pride for the hospital system, which lacked Black people in leadership, but Bankston chafed at the repetition. She was more than that, she said.

“After about the third or fourth time, I finally asked them, ‘Please stop that,’” she said. “‘I think that they can see that I’m Black.’

“I didn't want them to be focused on just that I’m Black. That's fine — I will always be Black. But I bring something else to the table as well.”

In the 31 years since that day, the Youngstown native has become one of the most influential women in Cincinnati health care. She rose from administrator at UC Medical Center to CEO of the Drake Hospital; now, she spends her time serving on various boards and mentoring other women to help their communities.

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She does most of it quietly. Bankston believes in the dignity of “leading from behind,” being the person who coordinates and opens doors for others rather than taking a public-facing role in change.

Although others describe her as a ceiling-shatterer, a nurturer and an inspiration, she sees herself as an introvert with a gift for putting puzzle pieces in the right place.

She’s focused especially on making connections between vulnerable people and health care systems that might otherwise exclude them.

“We're all here for a purpose, and we have to identify what that purpose is by sitting still long enough to know what our gifts are, so we can use those gifts for that purpose,” she said. “My purpose was sincerely to connect the dots, to clarify for clarifying what needs to be done and working with the individuals to get it done. I don't need to be the one to always do it.”

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Dr. O’Dell Owens, whose own long career included leading the Cincinnati Health Department and the equity-focused nonprofit Interact for Health, is one of her fans.

“First of all, she inspires anyone, no matter who you are,” he said. “If you are an admirer of hard work and preparation and want to acknowledge how a person can climb the ladder of management and success, Karen is an example.”

People like her, respect her and want to be her, he added. Even those who interact with her for a short time see it.

“She's a dynamic woman,” he said. “She's got great personality; she has confidence. And I think when people talk to her, they see the confidence — not cockiness, but confidence — and confidence is something that's backed by preparation and experience and achievement.”

Bankston said one of the biggest challenges she faced in her career was learning to project that confidence to others — and then believe in it herself.

“As women, we've been told — at least in my generation — it's not good to talk about yourself,” she said. “‘You're being braggadocious.’ Or, as you move into the professional realm, ‘You're quite arrogant.' And what I think I had to learn and what we need to share with other women is that there's a way of speaking your truth to get to an end goal without being so ignorant that no one can hear what you're saying."

It’s been a journey, too, to recognize and own the real change she’s created in Cincinnati.

“When I think about what have I brought to the table in terms of the community, it's the interventions that I think about that allowed me to participate in helping to make stronger health care delivery connections, stronger educational connections, helping to get people who look like me feel better about themselves, enough to step up to do those things,” she said. “When we people, we can make a better world, because we the people make up the world.”

To nominate someone you feel is an influential woman, email Tanya O’Rourke at