One Missed Call - and History

by Mya Roberson '16
August 21, 2015

Mya is a 2015 Royce Fellow and a recently-named Truman Scholar.

After being inducted as a Royce Fellow, I remember people constantly reiterating to me the notion that the best laid plans will go awry. That certainly applied to my struggle to interview Black women about their experiences with primary healthcare in Birmingham, AL. To recruit interview subjects, I began aggressively contacting Black churches hoping I could make a connection on that front; letters were mailed, e-mails were sent, phone calls were made.

One random day, I came out of the shower to see a missed call from a Birmingham area code on my phone. I quickly looked the number up to find that it was a match to the historic 16th Street Baptist Church. I could hardly contain my excitement - as a Black person, this church holds tremendous civil rights significance. I hurriedly called the number back and I reached a volunteer who told me that the Pastor had called me, but had left for the day and I was welcome to leave a message. I did, and then, history.

I woke up the next morning to headlines about a mass shooting in a Black church in South Carolina. The more I learned, the more my heart hurt. I was numb. After a sobering few days, and much introspection about my purpose, I pressed on. At the end of the day, Black women still had worse cancer outcomes than white women, and there was still much work to do to help close the disparity. If not me, then who?

Given the state of Black churches in this moment of history, it is not surprising that I was unable to connect with the 16th Street Baptist Church, or any other Black church. My attempt at recruiting Black women to interview for my project was wildly unsuccessful - and that’s okay. Even though that aspect of my project did not go as anticipated, another major component took off. While I was trying to recruit Black women to talk to, I was simultaneously interviewing primary care providers in Birmingham about their experiences talking with their Black patients about breast cancer screening and prevention. Every provider I talked with was more than willing to connect me with their colleagues. Suddenly, I went from seeking out primary care providers to them approaching me with their interest. Before I knew it, my recruiting target for providers was shattered and I was learning tremendous amounts about how primary care providers in Birmingham are navigating changing screening guidelines and outcome disparities.

My heart is still heavy from the senseless act of violence in Charleston. However, in the wake of the tragedy, I realized that if I give up on my drive to make the world a healthier, better place for Black women, then I let systemic racism win over me. I did not let it win, and my experience as a Royce fellow, however difficult, has only furthered my desire to fight for health equity for Black women.