For a long time I thought I was lucky to have fierce women who walked beside me & now I see the real luck was that these fierce women stayed there until I learned how to be fierce myself. —Brian Andreas, Creator of Story People and Flying Edna
These words hang on the wall of my office and were the inspiration of my remarks when I accepted the 2019 Advocate Award for my work in encouraging resident advocacy. As I reflect on my career thus far as an academic physician, it is clear that actively seeking opportunities and receiving excellent mentorship have been driving forces. It is not a secret that mentorship is important in any career path. It is crucial for us as Black and Brown medical educators.
I grew up as the daughter of an inner city public school teacher. Even now, some 20 years later, my mother’s influence is still evident when former students happily greet her around town and proudly show off their accomplishments. After high school, I was accepted into the combined BA/MD program at Brown University. Even at a large progressive school like Brown, I could count on one hand the numbers of Black and Brown faces who stood before our medical school class as faculty or deans. My school was not unique. Nationwide, the numbers of Underrepresented in Medicine (URM) Faculty in US medical schools remains well below 10% and has not kept pace with the increasing diversity among the student body or the society as a whole. One of those faces who significantly impacted me was Alicia Monroe MD, current provost of Baylor College of Medicine. She was one of the plenary session speakers at the last STFM Annual Spring Conference in Toronto. When she was our dean of Minority Students at Brown, my friends and I would go to her office to receive support, guidance, mentorship, or frankly just to see a face that looked like ours. Recently I was heartened to hear that among the reasons she was encouraged by her then department chair to pursue promotion early in her academic career was because of all the female junior faculty and women who looked up to her. I was definitely one of them. My experiences as a student leader at Brown solidified my passion for advocacy and imprinted me with the notion of my responsibility to speak for those who have no voice. I was awarded the National Health Service Corps Scholarship and committed myself to a career in family medicine.
After Brown I trained at Harbor-UCLA and completed an academic medicine fellowship and chief resident year. I continued to raise my voice as an advocate for marginalized and immigrant populations. In Southern California I became the president of our Resident Union and collaborated with local labor unions to help fight cuts to the community health center safety net. I began to see how I could combine my passion for social justice with my love of teaching and medical education. Rooted among hardworking new and first generation mainly Spanish speaking immigrants, I became firmly bilingual. One of my patients even called me an honorary Latina. This work became not just something I loved to do, rather, it was something I had to do. After completing my fellowship, I came to Washington, DC to serve my 2-year NHSC service commitment.
Those original 2 years morphed into 15 years as I stayed far past my service commitment serving a largely immigrant population at a 25,000 patient FQHC in DC. I sought out leadership roles such as medical director, director of student and resident education, and director of family medicine. As core faculty for our teaching health center/GME residency, I was introduced to STFM and attended my first conference in 2015. I applied for and was selected for the Quality Mentoring Program and the Emerging Leaders Fellowship. In DC I continue to be active in professionalism and assessment as the appointed chair of the DC Board of Medicine and as an item writer and reviewer for the NBME. As a local advocate I have had the privilege to testify on a variety of topics affecting marginized populations before audiences as diverse as the AAFP, the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved, DC government, and the Senate HELP Committee. I taught health literacy, advocacy, and health policy to the students who rotated at our center and to the residents in our THCGME residency. I am excited to continue my interests in advocacy and professionalism as a recent appointee to the Board of Trustees of the Family Medicine Education Consortium and to the Board of Directors of the American Board of Family Medicine. During my time at Unity, I taught scores of students from the GW School of Medicine and Health Science, a DC target school without an FM presence. I served as a kind of de facto community family medicine clerkship director as FM experiences were few and far between for the students. My work as an adjunct was recognized—I advocated for increased roles for community medicine faculty role and was accepted into the Master teacher Leadership Development Program at GW, named to medical school committees, chosen to direct the senior capstone course, and promoted to clinical associate professor. These professional opportunities were the result of hard work and dedication along with the influences of key mentors along the way. Recognizing the voids in my past student experiences motivated me to think of creative ways to combine my passion and interests with my career goals. My life was busy and full as I juggled my work with my roles as a mother of two young children, a wife, and a daughter.
Although I felt respected from my adjunct teaching position, I began to feel that I could have a bigger impact at a university level as a full-time faculty member. Years of student and faculty advocacy for FM at GW caught momentum and I was asked to join the leadership of a small new Division of Family Medicine. This switch necessitated that I get firmly on a full-time academic track. But on the other hand, I loved my FQHC patients, families who I had cared for for generations. I struggled with how to advocate for them, full of angst as I announced my decision to leave. Several cards and letters of gratitude poured in from my patients and friends. However, one from a teenage patient I have cared for since she was in kindergarten left a permanent mark on my heart. In her adolescent script she said:
“Don’t worry about me, Dr Anderson, I will achieve my dreams. I appreciate you so much. But I know it is time for you to move on, time to make new stars. Many students will appreciate your hard work so they can light up their dreams as well.”
So this year at commencement, I will walk in my academic regalia, this time with the other full-time faculty. When I hear those bagpipes I am again reminded how proud I am to be an African American woman in academic medicine. In the spirit of those who have mentored me along the way, I march proudly and cheer for my students. As URM faculty, our presence says that we are still here and you can be here too. We are contributing, shaping the scholarly discourse of primary care, medicine, and public health for years to come. I nod to everyone, but especially to all those grandmothers and parents and aunties and uncles of color who have sacrificed, sweated, and prayed so that their loved ones could achieve their dreams. That nod that says I see you, and I am standing up here for you. I think of my own grandmother, a proud, smart, and beautiful woman who missed out on her college and career dreams, so eventually I could realize mine. I think of my former immigrant patients and how it is my responsibility to speak up for them. I think of the theme song played as I accepted my STFM Advocate Award, “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys. STFM is a place where we are reminded that as family medicine educators, we are all on fire to create, as my teen patient and Brian Andreas would agree, Fierce New Stars. Let’s keep our torches burning brightly to do just that.