The push for inclusion, diversity and racial equity has risen to new levels since last year’s death of George Floyd. Throughout Penn Medicine, champions are pushing for change through the Action for Cultural Transformation (ACT), a unified effort that spans every level of the institution across both the University of Pennsylvania Health System and Perelman School of Medicine. The aims of the ACT touch on everything Penn Medicine does — in health care, in education and research, and in the community.
That effort is held up through localized efforts and champions for equity in every department, including Eugenia South, MD, an assistant professor and vice chair for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in Emergency Medicine. South is one among a cohort of exemplary leaders in new formal roles established in the last year. Now, all clinical departments at Penn Medicine have a vice chair, like South, devoted to addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Through both her work in the ED and her research, she has shown how important it is to connect and act in support of equity and inclusion on many fronts.
Changes that Make a Difference
South credits a biblical quote as helping to guide her career: “You shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.” But it was the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests that helped clarify a crucial throughline across each domain of her work: “To dismantle racism and promote justice by speaking up, educating others, pushing for change and empowering others to do the same.”
In her department’s vice chair role, South brings “a lens of anti-racism in everything we do.” For example, one project, which is being led by the ED Antiracism Taskforce, focuses on helping support staff — such as unit clerks, registration staff, and environmental services staff in her department, many of whom are Black or members of other minority groups. “What can we do for staff that are often overlooked to move the needle, create mentorships and professional development for their career aspirations?”
She has also overseen and helped develop strategies to increase resident diversity in the department, such as increasing the number of underrepresented minority (URM) students who interview with them and creating an interview guide for faculty in which “more emphasis was put on their background and leadership potential while traditionally the emphasis is solely on grades and scores in medical school.” In addition, a “diversity day” effort for URM students connected the applicants with Black faculty members or other residents, to help them see how they could fit in and thrive in the program.
In the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center ED, she sees first-hand how neighborhoods impact health in these areas. The pandemic, she said, has only made matters worse, with the additional stressors of higher rates of contracting and dying from COVID-19, lost jobs and increased evictions. The root causes of these racial health disparities, she said, are aspects of structural racism, including neighborhood environments where people live and work. Her research focuses on how “changing spaces and places — such as turning a vacant lot into a clean and green space — can impact many people at a relatively low cost,” she said. “Science backs this up. Research shows nature is good for physical and mental health,” and it helps to decrease violent crime.
During the first few months of the pandemic, when little was known about the virus and how it was transmitted, she said her own levels of anxiety and stress increased, not only from taking care of COVID patients but also keeping her own family safe. But she found respite in parks near her house. “I spent at least a few minutes outside every day,” she said. “It lifted my spirits and calmed anxiety.”
She is motivated to make these green places of rest and restoration accessible to everyone. “If Black lives really matter,” she said, “we must intentionally invest in Black people and Black neighborhoods.”