Date October 29, 2022
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Summit at Brown encourages health, medical careers for kids from underrepresented groups

Children and families convened with students, faculty and professionals at the Black Men in White Coats youth summit, focused on encouraging careers and strengthening the future of health and medicine in Rhode Island.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On a picture-perfect fall Saturday made for soccer games and pumpkin-picking, scores of local families chose to gather in packed auditoriums and classrooms at Brown University’s medical school to discuss ways to strengthen and diversify the future of health care.

Over 200 people attended the Black Men in White Coats youth summit on Oct. 29, an event organized and hosted by Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School and the School of Public Health. The free public event included a full day of events, workshops, forums and presentations intended to introduce kids and families to careers in health and medicine and offer opportunities for mentorship and networking.

Kids and teenagers in third grade through college met with medical students, resident physicians, faculty members and health professionals, learning strategies, engaging in discussion, and receiving advice and inspiration.

The summit was geared towards kids — particularly from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in medicine — as well as the people involved in supporting and raising children, said co-organizer Rosedelma Seraphin, assistant director of diversity and multicultural affairs at the medical school.

“We wanted to be able to give parents, caregivers, educators and community leaders the tools and information they need to support and nurture a child’s interest in medicine and health,” Seraphin said. “And we want students to leave feeling energized, with excitement and passion for a career in medicine, and also feeling like they have the support to be able to get there.”

The event was held in collaboration with Dr. Dale Okorodudu, a pulmonary and critical care physician in Dallas, who started the nonprofit organization Black Men in White Coats in 2013 in response to alarming data from the Association of American Medical Colleges showing that the already low number of black males applying to medical school was decreasing even further.

Last year, the Warren Alpert Medical School and School of Public Health hosted a virtual screening of a documentary by Black Men in White Coats and panel discussion with physicians, residents and medical students highlighting the lack of Black men in medicine. That event led to a rich and fulfilling conversation, said co-organizer Jai-Me Potter Rutledge, assistant dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the School of Public Health — and a summit felt like a way to broaden the discussion and, importantly, to spark personal connections.

“With an event like this, we hope to create a community of leaders, educators, parents, hospital administrators and faculty who are committed to increasing diversity in medicine,” Potter Rutledge said. “We want to build something that’s sustainable — a web of opportunities for our local youth.”

At one mid-morning workshop, Brown medical students talked to elementary school kids about broken bones, and taught the kids how to put a cast on a teddy bear. The medical students eagerly engaged the kids in conversation and listened to personal stories about accidents that had befallen the kids as well as their friends at school. When the instructors asked the kids who wanted to become a doctor, almost all of the hands went up.

Dr. Dioscaris Garcia, an assistant professor of orthopaedics (research) at the medical school who works in orthopaedic trauma research at Rhode Island Hospital, talked to the kids about growing up in Central Falls.

The event was targeted toward young people from underrepresented groups who have shown interest in medical careers, and organizers spread the word to schools in Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket, as well as local private schools, youth groups and other organizations rooted in social justice for students of color.

Dr. Mukesh K. Jain, dean of medicine and biological sciences at Brown, told attendees that the Warren Alpert Medical School has made great progress in terms of education, research and discovery over the 50 years since its founding, but that it still needs to do more to increase diversity in medicine.

“We hope this summit inspires a lasting relationship between the people in this room and Brown,” Jain said in a welcome address.

A range of sessions for a range of ages

More than 75 people from across the University signed up to volunteer at the event; and over 30 physicians, medical students, Ph.D. students and faculty participated in panels and workshops. Attendees had the option of visiting the sessions that made the most sense for their family.

“I’m seeing a lot of versions of myself but way smarter and better looking,” Garcia joked, before telling the students that the event wasn’t just about showing them what kinds of careers were available to them.

“We want you to know that we’re here for you,” he promised. Garcia encouraged the kids and their parents to reach out to him personally for advice or mentorship, and two parents who recognized him from another outreach event did exactly that. As the kids were tending to their ursine patients, Garcia mentioned that he was the only person of color in orthopaedics when he first joined the hospital, and that’s still true today.

“It never gets old to talk about how representation matters,” said Sophie Gibson, a workshop participant who was accompanied by her niece and nephew, both in seventh grade in Providence and North Providence.

Gibson said that she wanted the kids to hear from people of color in the medical field and to have the chance to and explore different educational and career pathways. She noted that while they were a little hesitant when she first told them about the event, they felt engaged by the hands-on project and enjoyed interacting directly with the medical students and faculty.

Other students didn’t need any convincing. Stephane Moray, a ninth-grader at East Providence High School, said he wanted to attend the Black Men in White Coats summit as soon as his mom told him she’d seen something about it on Facebook. Moray has always wanted to be a doctor — a pediatrician, because he likes helping people and he enjoys kids. He planned to attend every session of the day that applied to high schoolers, especially the one led by medical students about preparing for medical school.

Many of the speakers shared personal stories about their own paths into medicine, which not only made an impact on the youth in the audience, but also on the adults.

A session for educators, community leaders and parents about raising a doctor turned out to be especially engaging. An audience member shared a dilemma about moving her middle-schooler out of the city, where there was “a lot going on” that had the potential to distract him from his educational and career goals, to a suburb that turned out to be distracting in a different way because of racism in the community. The panelists, as well as several attendees, responded by talking about their own experiences with racism and tokenism, and shared their advice and what had worked for them, to the supportive nods of audience members.

One attendee referred to a previous summit session about mental health and resilience in black children, and echoed the importance of instilling in kids beliefs, morals and values — because no matter where you move, he said, “racism is everywhere.”

It was common for speakers to share their contact information with event participants. Joi-Danelle Whitehead, director of diversity, equity, inclusion and access for Brown Pre-College Programs, went even further. In a panel discussion for middle school students about pathways to careers in medicine, Whitehead said: “If you tell someone your dream and they tell you that you can’t do that, call me so that we can have the opposite conversation — so that I can connect you to people in the field who can give you real insights instead of discouraging you.”

Devon Edwards, a 10th-grader at Falmouth High School in Massachusetts, said he and his mom drove more than an hour to Providence for the event because his principal recommended it to him and knew he’d be interested. Edwards was indeed interested — he was especially impacted by hearing such a range of personal experiences and stories, and learning about different professional journeys. He said that previously, he hadn’t specifically been considering a career in health or medicine.

“But after today,” he said, “I am now.”