February 02, 2021

And Justice for All

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Summer 2020 was a season of intense emotion and activism, as the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others brought millions of people across America into the streets to raise their voices for racial justice. At the School of Medicine, those tragic events and the demonstrations surrounding them sparked a series of conversations around systemic racism. These led to a variety of programs and initiatives aimed at making the school more welcoming and inclusive for students, trainees, faculty, and staff of all backgrounds. The following highlights just a few of those efforts.

On June 10, the school hosted the first of a series of Racial Justice Town Halls, designed to provide space for listening, asking questions, and reaffirming the school’s commitment to issues related to race on the academic side of UAB Medicine. (Later town halls addressed matters on the hospital side and in relation to interactions with patients and the community.) This was the first step in a proactive process to listen to the School of Medicine community, gather information, and create and enact a tangible plan of action for addressing issues of racial injustice within the school as well as in the greater community.

Following the town halls, the school contracted with an external consulting firm to conduct focus groups and assist in the development of a comprehensive, long-term plan. The focus groups were conducted in early August and comprised a random sample of employees from each of the school’s constituent groups.

Following these listening efforts, more focus on racism and bias in medicine was incorporated into incoming medical students’ first course, Patient, Doctor and Society. The change was made specifically in response to feedback received from medical students and was welcomed enthusiastically by the 2020 incoming class. It will become a permanent part of the PDS course.

In June, the School of Medicine added a racial justice statement to its website. It begins, “The UAB School of Medicine condemns racism in all its forms. We acknowledge the existence of stereotyping, bias, discrimination, prejudice, microaggressions, and other forms of racism, and we commit to proactively working to eradicate inequalities.”

On June 5, School of Medicine leaders, faculty, and staff participated in White Coats for Black Lives, when health care workers across the nation showed their support for racial justice. Faculty members from the School of Medicine joined health professionals from across campus and UAB Medicine to kneel for a moment of silent reflection and commitment to improve the health and safety of people of color.

Also in June, the School of Medicine’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) announced the creation of new Black/African American and Hispanic/Latinx Faculty Associations, which held their first meetings the week of June 22. In recent years, the ODI has taken a more active role in recruiting people from diverse backgrounds—an important first step in creating an inclusive workplace for all. As more people from underrepresented groups join the School of Medicine, ODI leadership understands that it is equally important to cultivate an institutional climate that supports and nurtures their professional development. Within these new associations, members are encouraged to communicate, network, mentor, and serve as a voice for cultural and educational concerns among the faculty.

On June 19, Al.com published an op-ed written by School of Medicine Senior Vice President for Medicine and Dean Selwyn Vickers, M.D., FACS, in collaboration with a host of Birmingham-area faith leaders. Titled “A 2020 response to Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the op-ed recalls Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous missive, written in 1963 at a pivotal moment in our country’s long journey toward racial equality and justice, comparing those events to the ones that took place this spring and summer. In his letter, King admonished white churches and their leaders for acting as bystanders in the civil rights struggle. In the 2020 response, Vickers and his co-authors challenged today’s faith leaders to respond more forcefully and directly to the racism still prevalent in our society.

—Jane Longshore