By MaryKate Wust

In early June, faculty and staff came together at Penn Medicine sites across the region to join silent demonstrations organized with #WhiteCoatsForBlackLives, which aims to eliminate racism from medicine and promote the health and wellness of Black and minority communities. At Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, staff spilled out of the concourse and into the street, while at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, employees were met with honks and cheers as they lined the sidewalk. At the main event at Franklin Field on Penn’s campus, hundreds of members of the Penn and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia communities filled the turf and spread into the bleachers.

For eight minutes and 46 seconds—the amount of time a Minneapolis police officer fatally kneeled on George Floyd’s neck—participants took a knee in remembrance of his life and the lives of all of the victims of police brutality, in defiance of the racist systems that allow oppression to flourish, and in support of the protests sparked across the nation.

“We kneel in the hope that we don’t have another hashtag next week or next month. We kneel so that moments like this turn into movements,” said Florencia Greer Polite, MD, chief of General Obstetrics and Gynecology, whose powerful words soared across Franklin Field. But kneeling, she cautioned, is not enough. “Breaking down systemic racism is going to take real work. The question is: Are we willing to doing the hard work of confronting implicit bias and recognizing our role in the current system?”

To that question, Penn Medicine has responded with a resounding “yes.”

To meet this moment with the urgency it demands, the Office of Inclusion and Diversity partnered with Penn Medicine Academy to develop the Action for Cultural Transformation (ACT) plan—a framework that champions diversity, inclusion, and equality. ACT seeks to drive both long- and short-term goals that will make Penn a better place to work, learn, and receive care. The ACT agenda includes cultural shifts like widening opportunities for research and advancement for underrepresented minorities, addressing the social determinants of health that affect patients’ lives, and setting the next generation of physicians up for success by ensuring culturally competent care is at the center of their education.

In an open letter titled, “My Heart is Broken, But I Am Sustained by Hope,” Vice Dean for Inclusion and Diversity Eve Higginbotham SM, MD, ML, wrote, “I am reminded during this difficult time of the phrase, ‘to whom much is given, much is required.’ As professionals, we have had opportunities that few others will ever realize. … Thus, using our gifts, our opportunities, our blessings, what can we do to help craft the alternative path … and emerge as a better society?”

The Penn Medicine community has already taken several key steps on the path to an antiracist health system, including initiating authentic conversations and requiring that each member of the workforce complete unconscious bias training by year’s end. As Higginbotham noted in an interview for the Penn Medicine News Blog, sustainable, transformational change requires widespread support from faculty, staff, and students alike: “There’s nothing more powerful than a community being galvanized and pushing to become the best it can be.”

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