By Jamie Williams, email@example.com
A group chat among new friends launched a hashtag which, when emblazoned on t-shirts, sparked curiosity and jump-started a movement that percolated through the UNC School of Medicine and started conversations nationwide. Now, White Coats Black Doctors, a group started last school year by UNC SOM students Celeste Brown, Spencer Carter, Jenay Powell, Kevin Courts and Anthony McClenny will use the platform they have built in a little over a year’s time to host an event that they call a manifestation of their mission.
On Friday evening at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, the group will host Damon Tweedy, MD, assistant professor, psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, for a live interview and discussion focused on the importance of increasing the numbers of African American medical students and physicians.
Tweedy’s recent book, “Black Man in a White Coat” – the similarity between the book title and group’s name is sheer coincidence – has gained national attention for its frank discussion of how increasing the number of African American physicians can help to address the health care disparities experienced by African Americans and all Americans living in poverty.
“In his book, Dr. Tweedy lays things out very candidly,” Brown said. “I think we have made some real gains at UNC in terms of speaking openly about the need for diversity, but sometimes it remains in the abstract and we don’t get to the difficult parts of the conversation. I hope this event can spark those conversations and also help to strengthen connections between medical students and physicians.”
The conversations that led Brown and the other co-founders to launch White Coats Black Doctors began last year when the group was new to Chapel Hill. Brown started a chat on the text messaging app GroupMe. She invited other African American first-year students to join the group – which she called White Coats Black Doctors – as a way for the new students to get to know each other.
That name, White Coats Black Doctors, became a hashtag that they used on Instagram and other social media. But, it really took off when they wore t-shirts with the slogan to the annual Student National Medical Association conference in New Orleans.
“While we were at the conference, medical students from across the country were coming up to us asking about our shirts, saying they wanted one,” Brown said. “We never had any intention of selling them, but that reaction showed us that we had an opportunity to help spread a feeling of solidarity among African American medical students from across the country.”
The group then launched a social media campaign, asking users to post a picture with a message about why they believed in the importance of diversity in medicine using the hashtag #WhyBlackDocs.
“It was really cool to see so many of our classmates and even faculty members and administrators participate in that campaign,” Carter said. “That’s when I think we started to see the impact we could have.”
The mission of White Coats Black Doctors extends far beyond t-shirts and hashtags, however. The group wants to foster frank conversations about the value of diversity in medicine.
“We know that not a lot of progress happens when people stay in their comfort zones,” Carter said. “Until we are all willing to step out of those comfort zones, real progress is difficult.”
The group credits their fellow students and UNC SOM faculty members who have welcomed those conversations.
“We have had support from both White and Black faculty members who have made it clear that UNC is a safe space to have those discussions and plant the seeds of progress,” Brown said.
“As an African American, there are certain things that may seem obvious to me, but not to my other classmates and so sometimes just saying the words can be a powerful way to get the ball rolling,” Powell said.
The group has partnered with other student organizations to participate in events like Doctors for Diversity, which was held in October and sponsored by the Whitehead Medical Society.
“I consider all of this really perfect timing and love that we have fellow students taking the lead on great events like Doctors for Diversity,” Brown said. “The fact that this is all happening at once is almost divine intervention.”
The group is also looking to leave a legacy at UNC.
On Friday, they will officially designate the M.E.D. program as the beneficiary of funds raised through the ongoing sale of their White Coats Black Doctors apparel.
Four of the five co-founders are alumni of the M.E.D. program and they have all benefited from the support and counsel of Cedric Bright, MD, assistant dean, admissions and special programs, who spearheads the M.E.D. program.
“M.E.D. was probably the main reason I chose to come to Carolina,” Brown said.
Brown, McClenny and Carter also served as teaching assistants for last summer’s M.E.D. program.
“We have seen the benefit of the program both as participants and then as TAs, so the opportunity to partner with them and make an impact on future medical students was ideal for us,” Carter said.
They even credit Bright for helping to start the dialogue that led to Tweedy agreeing to appear at Friday night’s event.
That event will feature a live interview between Brown and Tweedy, centered on the themes of his book and other writings which have appeared in publications like the New York Times. Brown said that she hopes the event will spark conversation and also strengthen connections between current and prospective medical students and faculty members.
“Having Black physicians that were supportive and willing to give us advice was integral in our belief that we could be successful as doctors,” Brown said. “We want to be that for the next generation.”
More information on Friday’s event can be found here.
The group would like to also thank the event’s co-sponsors: The Medical Alumni Loyalty Fund, The UNC School of Medicine Office of Special Programs, The Center for Health Equity Research and UNC’s chapter of the Student National Medical Association.