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“Uncomfortable Conversations” Series Creates Open Dialogue for UTHSC Students

The “White Coats for Black Lives” demonstration held in June prompted medical students to create a summer-long anti-racism series for UTHSC students and faculty.

In June, hundreds of health care professionals, staff, and students participated in “White Coats for Black Lives,” at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, a display of solidarity against racism.

“This does not stop at this protest,” said Elizabeth Clayton, a second-year medical student. “We must continue to examine our own hearts and minds. We must continue to hold each other accountable and continue to have uncomfortable conversations, if we’re to create new systems that benefit everyone.”

This call to action resonated with Radha Patel, a fourth-year medical student and member of the Gold Humanism Honor Society (GHHS).

“Elizabeth’s words really struck a chord with me and I went home and reviewed the mission of the Gold Humanism Honor Society,” Patel said. “Our mission is to promote and push forward health care education by placing values, dignity, and interest at the center of our medical education and practice. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, it was clear to me that the values, the interests, and the dignity of the Black community, weren’t being placed at the center of education and practice.”

Patel set out to connect with Clayton, and other members of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), an organization on campus dedicated to supporting ethnically diverse and underrepresented minority medical students and cultivating a generation of culturally competent and socially conscious physicians, including second-year medical students Gene Lamanilao, Monica Ogunsusi, Okeoghene Ogaga, and Seyi Adeleye. Together, with the added collaboration of GHHS members Sophia Lavie, Melissa Justo, Mary McBride, Kevin Sellers, and fourth year medical student and Unite member John Collyer, they launched “Uncomfortable Conversations” a summer-long anti-racism series for UTHSC students and faculty.

The “Uncomfortable Conversations” series had a total of six sessions. They included the following topics of discussion: Privilege and Implicit Bias; Systemic Racism and the Justice System; Housing Discrimination and its Lasting Effects on the Black Community; an Intersectional Conversation with UTHSC Unite, a resource organization on campus concerned with improving the visibility, strength, and support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA+) students and initiatives on campus; and Racism in Health Care.

Students participate in one of the six Zoom sessions held during the series.

Goals for the series moving forward include publishing the curriculum so that materials are focused on the disparities seen within specific communities and campuses. The first series was focused on the Memphis community, and will be updated to reflect the Chattanooga and Knoxville community.

“The fact that this was a continuous series, we were able to address multiple layers and multiple topics that demonstrated how pervasive and ingrained racism is within society,” said Lamanilao, a SNMA and Unite member.

Lamanilao said he enjoyed that the series was heavily conversation based, as opposed to a didactic lecture style, where participants sit there and listen. He said, “These conversations allowed people to unpack previously held biases. The series really helped people, especially with me. I was able to confront what privileges I had and how those privileges have benefited me, but at the expense of others within the community.”

Since the series was open to not just medical students and faculty, it allowed interprofessional discussion among the different colleges and health disciplines training at UTHSC.

“We are all looking for the best health outcome for patients,” said Clayton. “That takes understanding their background, their story, and being able to relate to that. The series also allowed us to engage and talk about difficult subjects with other colleges, and that was really helpful and powerful.”

The series was recently recognized by the Gold Foundation and the Gold Humanism Honor Society as 2020 National Initiative Spotlight.

“A big thing I learned from this is the power of your voice and speaking up,” Patel said. “When you say what you feel is morally right, even if it’s uncomfortable, you’ll find that there are a lot of people around you who are feeling the same way.”