There is no question we are at an inflection point on confronting racial injustice in our country, our city, and within our institution. The civil unrest that broke out this spring in response to the death of George Floyd – and so many Black people across the U.S. before him – brought to light the pervasive racism that is within all aspects of our culture, including medicine. Just as Penn Medicine leads in our field, we intend to lead as we more intentionally tackle racism, too.

Within days after our first community conversation described in the story below, Dean Jameson and I announced a few initial action steps, with more to follow. One of which will be that, by the end of this year, every member of the Penn Medicine employee population will be required to undergo implicit bias training. Additionally, a draft outline of our organization’s strategic plan is posted on the Office of Inclusion and Diversity website and I urge you to review it and take part in our next focused community discussions. We all have a part to play in dismantling injustice. These are the first of many steps our organization will take in this fight.

I’ve seen a lot of movements in my life and I’ve seen them fizzle out. My commitment is that I will do everything in my power to make sure this movement doesn’t fizzle out. Together, we will step up, lean in, and get started.

Racial Injustice Prompts Discomfort, Frank Conversation, and Movement toward Action

The scoreboard timer in Franklin Field was set to 8 minutes 46 seconds. Florencia Greer-Polite, MD, chief of General Obstetrics and Gynecology, told the crowd, “Our knees are going to hurt, and that is the point. We have been comfortable for too long.”

On Friday, June 5, nearly 1,000 people from Penn Medicine and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia then knelt in silence as those 8 minutes and 46 seconds counted down, in remembrance of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd and the countless others who have been victims of racism. The event held by Penn’s chapter of White Coats for Black Lives drew attendees from across the spectrum, medical students to senior faculty, support staff to senior leaders, united from their perspective as members of the health care community to protest the racial injustices that had set off a heightened new wave of national protests earlier that week.

The size of the crowd was especially poignant for Michal Elovitz, MD, director of the Maternal and Child Health Research Center, who initially partnered with a few colleagues and sent an email about their plan for a modest outdoor kneeling protest. But then hundreds of replies poured in within hours, including from both J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, EVP of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine, and from University of Pennsylvania Health System CEO Kevin Mahoney. Each said “I’ll be there.”

The crowd reflected what has turned out to be a profound groundswell of support across Penn Medicine to make changes against racial injustice far beyond a single day of protest.

The week following the Franklin Field event, Penn Medicine held an online community dialogue on racism, racial justice, and social equity — the first in a series that will progressively focus more sharply on actions and delivery.

During the hour-long virtual panel discussion, six Black members of the Penn Medicine and CHOP community from a variety of roles reflected on the meaning of this moment and their hopes for the future, followed by comments from Maria Oquendo, MD, PhD, chair of Psychiatry offering advice on coping with the pain of confronting racism. The panel was followed by parting thoughts and reflections from Jameson, Mahoney, and CHOP CEO Madeline Bell.

The frank and open discussion spanned personal experience with racism, research-backed insights into the problem, and proposed solutions. Richard Watson, of Patient Transport at HUP, recounted being stopped and questioned by police while simply waiting for a bus to go home from work. He worries not only about his own safety but also that of his 13-year-old son. “I’m scared for him. I try to teach him the right things… At any given time, he could be Tamir Rice, who was a twelve-year-old kid at the time of his demise at the hands of police brutality.” Tamir was holding a  toy gun when a Cleveland policeman shot him in 2014. 

Lamin Sonko, a Penn MD/MBA student, spoke of walking to class in a campus building with his friends when a security guard asked him the only Black student in the group to show ID “because I didn’t look like I belonged there,” he said. Sonko also outlined goals on behalf of the Black medical student community for specific steps to support underrepresented minorities in medicine at Penn.

Megan Lane-Fall, MD, of Anesthesiology and Critical Care and Epidemiology, and chair of the medical faculty senate, asked attendees to acknowledge that racism exists in the halls of power at Penn and is built into the status quo. “Racism threatens our science, clinical practice, and our education,” she said. Lane-Fall also expressed hope “that we can embrace the discomfort that these conversations will bring… Prioritizing comfort over action undermines our mission.”

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