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HCMC in Minneapolis is grappling with tensions around an employee-planned discussion about Palestine that was approved but then called off by hospital leadership.

A group of employees at the safety-net hospital in downtown Minneapolis say they organized the event to discuss the effects to healthcare workers in Gaza amid the Israel-Hamas war. They say the decision to postpone it raises issues of academic freedom and is in opposition to hospital goals around racial equity. Three leaders of employee affinity groups have since resigned those internal roles in protest of the decision.

"Being an employee, and witnessing what's happening in Palestine is not good for our mental health, and not being able to process and talk about it is not good for mental health," said Eiko Mizushima, a Hennepin occupational therapist involved with the organizing.

Leaders at the hospital, which is run by the Hennepin Healthcare system, say they believed the focus of the event would be on Palestinian culture in conjunction with Asian and Pacific Heritage month. Concern grew amid word that it may have caught the interest of some outside demonstrators, Chief Health Equity Officer Nneka Sederstrom said.

"I'm not going to allow external people coming to an internal event that could cause disruption, that would cause issues for our patients ... our community is our top priority," Sederstrom said.

Government agencies, schools, hospitals and other institutions have dealt with internal conflict related to the war in Gaza since it broke out last October. Employees and students who want to be able to react to world events that impact their mental health and work are butting up against officials and administrators who are trying to emphasize that such debates should be secondary to running places of business and learning.

At HCMC, members of several Asian, Muslim and LGBTQ collectives, which are employee affinity groups that focus on wellness, put together a joint statement on the Israel-Hamas war that they hoped to release publicly. They approached hospital administrators and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) officials, who suggested as an alternative an event focused on Palestine.

The collectives went on to plan an event that would focus on Palestinian culture and history, and feature a discussion of how the situation in Gaza is affecting healthcare workers — in Palestine, locally and globally. Dr. Christine Harb, a local doctor who is Palestinian, was tapped as a speaker.

The event was approved by the hospital's DEI department. Mizushima said that organizers repeatedly reiterated to hospital leadership that all employees would be welcome, including Jewish employees.

"We're in charge of employee wellness," Mizushima said of the employee collectives. She has since resigned as co-chair of the hospital's Asian employee collective over the controversy.

As the planned June 7 event approached, Harb posted to her personal social media asking for support from members of the community due to safety concerns. She wrote that, in her words, "Zionists would be attending."

The post was later taken down, but it contributed to concerns by hospital administrators, who postponed the event three days before it was to take place.

What had initially been approved was a cultural celebration of the Palestinian people with food, music and dance, Sederstrom said. Harb's Instragram post caused concern that the speaker didn't know what had been approved, Sederstrom said, adding that collective-sponsored events are intended to be by employees, for employees and not open to the public.

"This was an opportunity to normalize Palestinian culture, and we're still going to do it," Sederstrom said. "It's just not going to be used or co-opted for activism that doesn't coincide and go along with the mission of the organization ... we aren't an activist group, we are a community hospital."

Committee members have started working on the rescheduled version of the event and the re-securing of vendors and participants, she said.

But members of the employee groups say the decision to exclude Harb from the rescheduled event felt like an effective cancellation. Some created a petition on change.org that said the hospital is "censoring healthcare workers" who are speaking about the dehumanization and systematic mass murder of Palestinians."

As the major public academic medical center in Minnesota, it felt important for the collectives to host the talk, said Dr. Max Fraden. Similar events where Fraden has spoken about the health impacts of the wars in Somalia and Tigray have proceeded without issue, he said.

"A bunch of us Jewish doctors, non-Jewish doctors were really excited for this talk. When we heard that it was canceled, we were quite upset," Fraden said. "I have family in Israel. And I think it's really important that all sides of an issue are academically explored."

Harb hosted her original version of the talk in an online media webinar that garnered nearly 200 attendees, Mizushima said.

"I was really dismayed that such an excellent presentation could be called divisive," Mizushima said. "It really focused on the social determinants of health. Eighty percent of health outcomes are determined by non-medical factors ... access to food and water and psychological safety."

The hospital prides itself on anti-racism and moving toward health equity, and the postponement felt in opposition to that, said Hana-May Eadeh, a psychology fellow at the hospital who is Palestinian. Current events impact patient care for those who are Palestinian or Middle Eastern, Eadeh said.

"We need to be able to speak out, to talk about how wrong this is," Eadeh said. "I think canceling or silencing this type of talk about genocide or what's happening in Palestine just shows a lack of awareness around health equity and anti-racism."

The hospital has created wellness spaces for collective members to discuss how events outside of work are affecting them, Sederstrom said.

Employees are still hoping the event's original speaker will be invited to return for her presentation.