Third in a series marking Black History Month.
Kaiser Permanente executive Alva Wheatley, who can claim a number of firsts for African American women in business, was inducted into the Kaiser Permanente Diversity Hall of Fame in 2007. She retired in 1995 after 31 years of service.
Wheatley was the first woman of color to serve as a Kaiser Permanente hospital administrator, and was the first female vice president of facilities construction, both for the Health Plan and throughout the building industry.
She was the first woman of color on the Northern California Kaiser Permanente regional leadership team and the first Black person and first woman to serve as Health Plan national vice president.
She was also the first executive responsible for Kaiser Permanente’s diversity program and is co-founder of the Kaiser Permanente African American Professionals Association established in 1990.
During her tenure as head of facilities construction, Wheatley oversaw the development of 5 hospitals and 10 medical office buildings.
Wheatley has deep roots in the Kaiser organization; both of her parents worked in the Kaiser Richmond Shipyards during World War II and were members of the Kaiser Health Plan in the 1940s.
Alva began her career at Kaiser Permanente in 1964 when she took a position as assistant receptionist supervisor at the San Francisco Medical Center.
She held various management positions after that, including hospital administrator at the South San Francisco Medical Center for three years. She returned to San Francisco as a hospital administrator in 1981.
Subsequently, she was appointed vice president and manager of Facilities Development for the Northern California region and was later named national vice president for facilities for the Kaiser Permanente program across all regions.
In 1989 Kaiser Permanente management formed the Minority Recruitment and Development Task Force to more systematically address institutional inequalities. Among other activities, that group conducted an employee survey and developed recommendations leading to an official Policy Statement on Cultural Diversity.
In 1991, while Wheatley was serving as facilities head for Northern California, she took on a 2-year special assignment as vice president and manager of Kaiser Permanente’s Cultural Diversity Project for the national program.
“So much of valuing diversity is simply increasing awareness ... you can't just confront people and tell them they have to change overnight," she pointed out. "So we start with awareness and confronting our prejudices. It doesn't guarantee people will change their opinions right away, but they will have to change their behavior."1
Wheatley's appointment further underscored Kaiser Permanente's commitment to those ideals. She visited all of the Health Plan’s regions and listened to learn about each of their situations. “My job is to help the regions identify what they need to do to deal with their issues,” she said.
Alva Wheatley served as a role model for women and people of color in Kaiser Permanente; the 2007 Diversity Hall of Fame Award honored her pioneering spirit in making the Health Plan a better place to work.
1 Article in KP Spectrum, Fall 1992.