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Connective Issues: A UMass Chan diversity and inclusion blog

Black History Month and the power of collective agency

Tuesday, February 01, 2022
By:  Janjay Innis

This month, institutions across the United States will acknowledge Black History Month by sharing achievements and reinforcing their commitments to diversity thus making it time of celebration.

Black History Month began in 1926 when Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson, co-founder of the Association of the Study of African American Life and History, sponsored National African American History Week to promote the achievements of African Americans and recognize their role in U.S. history. This boosted the morale and pride of African Americans, and it became a central part of the culture of historically Black colleges and universities. Since President Gerald Ford declared February as Black History Month in 1976, it has been observed nationally.

The Learners of Color Orientation provides support to
students of color as they begin their journey at UMass Chan
Medical School. From left, Tan Chingfen Graduate School of Nursing student Reginald Sarpong;
MD/PhD candidate Abiola Ogunsola, medical student Daniel Ugochukwu,
and PhD candidate Cesar Bautista Sotelo speak
during the Learners of Color Orientation last fall.

Black History Month was built on the foundation of movements that sought to address racism at its root, with institutions such as universities and faith communities serving as training grounds to prepare active participants for social justice leadership. Today, as we too are anchored in the great gains of the civil rights movement and inspired by the social justice movements of our time, we ought to celebrate the commitments we have made. But if our celebrations do not beckon us to stay on course, recognizing that we have much more work to do, they are aimless.

In the past five years, less than 10 percent of students enrolled at UMass Chan Medical School are Black and as of July 2021, less than 5 percent of the faculty are Black.

The numbers are jarring, but they are on par with diversity statistics from medical schools across the United States. According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges, 11.3 percent of medical students in the United States in 2021 were Black. That represents a 21 percent increase, up from 9.5 percent in 2020. Meanwhile, 52 percent of medical school students across the country in 2021 were white, according to the AAMC.

Knowing where we are must lead us to collective agency that moves us to where we ought to be. Collective agency puts the onus on us to work together to impart change. It demands we assume the best: that there are Black aspiring doctors, advanced practice nurses and scientists who want to attend UMass Chan Medical School; that there are capable Black candidates who fit and sometimes exceed the qualifications we desire for faculty and staff; and if diversity is a vision and core value of ours, collective agency calls us to be relentless in our pursuit of this group whose perspectives and worldviews enhance innovation for our institution.

When we do attract Black candidates, collective agency demands we be candid about race, creating spaces to talk about implicit bias and microaggressions that are the cornerstones of structural racism. Collective agency rejects complacency due to modest success in diversity recruitment. Rather, it urges us to evaluate our strategies of retention by inviting Black people into the hiring process and by implementing mentorship and growth opportunities.

Some of the ways the Diversity and Inclusion Office at UMass Chan is leading in these efforts is through its BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) focus with a particular lens on Black, Indigenous and Latinx groups. This focus has led to the implementation of events such as the Learners of Color Orientation to offer support to students of color as they begin their journey; the creation of affinity groups such as the Colorful Voices Network to support staff of color, and AALANA, for faculty of African American, Latinx, Asian and Native American decent. Projects in progress include the Diversity for HIM (health care, innovation and medicine) initiative to increase Black men in health care and biomedical sciences; and the development of a diversity pillar that will be added to the Impact 2025 strategic plan to guide departments in implementing and measuring their progress in creating more diverse and equitable environments for work and study.

The Office of Health Equity has joined in these efforts through faculty cluster hiring meant to increase diversity and foster collaboration across academic disciplines. These new ways of centering marginalized groups work in tandem with existing projects such as the Worcester Pipeline Collaborative, which creates a pathway to success for underrepresented students in biomedical science and health care professions.

This Black History Month, we have every right to celebrate the policies we have set in place and what we have done to address the lack of adequate representation from the Black population, but beyond celebration, we must let what we have been able to achieve in scratching the surface of representation propel us to work toward what representation truly looks like.

Janjay Innis covers
diversity, equity and
topics at UMass
Chan Medical School.