Hofstra Law alumna Mecca Sykes-Santana ’00 is the senior vice president of diversity, inclusion, and community engagement for the Westchester Medical Center Health Network. As head of the Office of Diversity and Community Engagement, she is responsible for building and leveraging relationships with external stakeholders in the diverse communities that make up the Hudson Valley, while also ensuring that all internal organizational policies and procedures across the 10-hospital network align with diversity and inclusion best practices.
Tell us about your career — where did you start and how did you get to where you are now?
I began my career as an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Appointed by renowned former District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, I was honored to serve as a member of the Trial Division, Sex Crimes Unit, and Domestic Violence Unit. I then joined the New York State Commission of Investigation, where I served as senior counsel and worked with a talented team of attorneys and investigators on assorted criminal matters throughout the state.
“While the jobs have changed over the last 19 years, my passion for advocacy has not. I heard it once said that a job is what you are paid for, while a calling is what you are made for. Advocacy is my calling, and I am fortunate to have been able to pursue that calling across various professional realms.”
After those stints in law enforcement, I transitioned to civil rights work, serving as the executive director for the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management at the New York City Department of Education. I oversaw the Discrimination Complaint Unit, the EEO Training Unit, the Title IX Unit, the Contract Compliance Unit, the Disability Rights Unit, and the Diversity Management Unit — a unit that I created.
While I truly loved that role, I left when I was appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo as New York State’s chief diversity officer responsible for ensuring equitable policies and procedures for the State workforce and minority- and women-owned businesses and service-disabled-veteran-owned businesses. While this high-profile work was truly rewarding, I chose to leave after several years to focus on better work-life integration. My current role allows me to spend quality time with my school-age children while continuing to fight for issues impacting vulnerable populations.
While the jobs have changed over the last 19 years, my passion for advocacy has not. I heard it once said that a job is what you are paid for, while a calling is what you are made for. Advocacy is my calling, and I am fortunate to have been able to pursue that calling across various professional realms.
What is a standout moment or accomplishment you are most proud of in your career?
I have been fortunate to enjoy a professional career with many notable accomplishments — high-level appointments, C-suite promotions, United Nations presentations, etc. However, my most significant accomplishment has been the impact I have been able to have on those talented, dynamic, diverse individuals who have worked for me. To see so many of them now ascending to positions of chief diversity officers, chiefs of investigations, assistant vice presidents, and other leadership positions makes me so incredibly proud that I was in a position to help nurture, mentor, and support them on their professional journeys. I firmly believe that our stories will be told by those we touched along the way. I hope my story will be one of contribution.
How did your Hofstra Law education help shape your career?
My time at Hofstra was truly transformative. From my time spent debating points of law and facts with other dynamic, diverse colleagues and professors to my time serving as a student advocate in two different clinics to the networking opportunities that I was exposed to, Hofstra Law created an environment that nourished my passions and helped me discover my purpose. Additionally, I was fortunate enough to be the recipient of the Dwight L. Greene Memorial Scholarship, a scholarship dedicated to the former Hofstra Law professor who spent his career being of service to others. This full-tuition scholarship allowed me to leave law school without the burden of any student loan debt, which provided a sense of financial freedom for me to pursue a tremendously rewarding career in public service.
What is your biggest piece of advice for those looking to start a diversity and inclusion program at their firm?
The commitment to creating diverse, inclusive, and engaged environments in any organization requires strategic planning, a meaningful commitment by the head of the organization, accountability for every member of the leadership team to support and promote diversity and inclusion initiatives through their own self-generated efforts, and ongoing messaging about the value of diversity and inclusion, not as a moral imperative, but as a business imperative aligned with the organizational mission, vision, and values.
What trends do you see in your field?
More organizations are moving away from marginalized diversity efforts (e.g., one-off trainings or festive food events during certain months, etc.) that are not aligned with larger organizational goals. In moving toward a concretized strategic focus, organizations are able to ensure that this work is both substantive and sustainable. Organizations are also elevating the work of diversity and inclusion by creating senior positions for diversity practitioners and dedicated departments to focus exclusively on this work to ensure that it is woven into the very fabric of the organization.
How do you spend your leisure time?
I enjoy spending my free time with my fiancé and my children attending sporting events, lounging around in my pool, playing tennis, and serving as a mentor in Judge Judy’s Her Honor Mentorship Program.