Continuing the Conversation
On Tuesday, July 5, 2016, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot and killed after being pulled over in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; the next day, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Minnesota resident, was fatally shot by a police officer in a suburb of St. Paul; that Sunday, a gunman targeted police officers in Dallas, killing five and wounding seven other officers and two civilians. Sterling and Castile were both black, as was the gunman. The police officers were white.
In response to the recent violence – which follows the fatalities of black men by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri; New York City; Cleveland, Ohio; Baltimore, Maryland; and North Charleston, South Carolina, among others – the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) hosted a Town Hall July 13 to discuss heightened racial tensions in the country.
“It is an important part of a university to have these conversations to not only engage folks and to talk about what our experiences are, but also to explore ways we can move forward, work together, and make a difference,” said Jeffrey S. Akman, M.D. ’81, RESD ’85, vice president for health affairs, Walter A. Bloedorn Professor of Administrative Medicine, and dean of SMHS.
Akman, along with Yolanda Haywood, M.D., RESD ’87, B.S.’81, associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and student affairs and associate professor of emergency medicine at SMHS, spoke with and listened to GW students, faculty, staff, and librarians, as well as current participants and leaders in the school’s Upward Bound and the DC Health and Academic Preparation Program.
“We have to acknowledge that there are groups of people who feel like their lives don’t matter,” said Haywood. “There are people on our campus and in our school who feel like that, and that’s one of the reasons to have a conversation.”
Discussions centered on the need to continue talking about race and equality, what resources are available, and how students can get involved. Last year, for instance, SMHS students promoted racial bias as a public health issue by hosting a die-in protest, #whitecoats4blacklives.
“I have a vision that our students will be physician-activists, and I have a vision that our students and our doctors will make a difference in the community,” Akman said.
Upward Bound participants – high school seniors who have expressed an interest in medical and allied health careers and who come from low-income families – and their leaders voiced their own concerns and what they would like to see: more successful black people in science, medicine, and engineering; fairer portrayals by the media; a continued dialogue; and a reminder that people are more than hashtags and deserve bright futures.
Ken Crosson, facilities manager at SMHS, added that respect is crucial. “We are people,” he said. “We have to treat people with respect. We need more conversations.”
While the Town Hall was a start, Haywood urged those in attendance to continue the spirit of activism by reaching out to others. For 21 days, she said, “I challenge everybody in the room, from youngest to oldest, look for somebody who looks as different as possible from you and find a way to have a conversation. Who’s in?”