Juneteenth and our commitment to equity and inclusion

Tomorrow is Juneteenth. Earlier this week, both houses of Congress voted by wide bipartisan margins to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Yesterday, President Biden signed this into law. This decision recognizes that to build a better tomorrow it is important to acknowledge the stains of the past and to use the lessons of history to underpin our efforts to build a truly equitable society. The Juneteenth holiday is a welcome acknowledgement that for many Black Americans, June 19 has been as important an anniversary as the 4th of July. It is heartening to see this recognized as one that all Americans should celebrate, while recognizing that there is much work that remains to be done to correct the long-term consequences of a legacy of racism. You can read more about the history of this holiday and find links to other relevant resources on our college’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Office pageThis four-part conversation between University of Iowa’s Associate Vice President for DEI Dr. Liz Tovar and community leaders Billie and Orv Townsend is also particularly insightful. You can find lists of celebrations and other activities in the area on this City of Iowa City webpage as well as information and events in Cedar Rapids listed on the African American Museum of Iowa website. Last year as Juneteenth approached, we were in the midst of long-overdue conversations about race, racism, social justice, and our personal roles in relation to it. I said in this post last year, and I repeat now: Let this holiday be a reminder that we have a responsibility to work toward equality and equity for our patients, our trainees, for each other, and for all members of our community. 

Our department continues to lead the way to address issues of health equity and in finding ways to diminish barriers and structural inequities in our health care system. A member of our Division of Infectious Diseases, Dr. Martha Carvour, recently received a three-year, $758K grant from funds generated by the university’s P3 investment. The committee’s approval of the proposal signals that Dr. Carvour and her co-PIs, Drs. Kimberly Dukes and Ebonee Johnson, have crafted an approach that will benefit the entire institution and the community that surrounds us. Their project, Equity in Health Science and Practice, is visionary. The following is a summary of their goals: “The project will engage faculty, staff, students, and community partners in the conduct of rigorous health equity research and the translation of research findings into community-based interventions. Expected outcomes include published interventional approaches for advancing health equity in the state of Iowa, including on-campus and community-based infrastructure for future pandemic-related and non-pandemic-related health equity research.” I applaud the team’s approach for charting a path for future projects using a model that is inclusive and sustainable. Most important, though, as Dr. Carvour says, this work will help to restore trust among people who have been historically overlooked by academic research, to the detriment of us all.

Ameliorating the harm that systemic racism has produced across all health care systems including our own, is of critical importance. Whether it is learning to counterbalance our own unconscious biases through training, participating in regular discussions and listening sessions with those who have plenty to teach us, making use of resources like CultureVision and other resources available on the DEI page, or increasing our empathy as we become better listeners, I have been encouraged by the growth I have seen at the University of Iowa and in UI Health Care. There might be setbacks or detours that we can learn from but we should always take the longer view with the understanding that progress does not always look like a straight line. As long as leadership continues to endorse, promote, and invest resources in this positive journey, positive change will be inevitable.

Not only are we celebrating Juneteenth this month, but June is also Pride Month. The University of Iowa, Carver College of Medicine, and UI Health Care have emphasized during this month our staunch commitment to creating an inclusive environment, where everyone is welcome. We should not forget that not all that long ago, who you were and who you loved was not so easily declared as it is today. Nor was it as easy to get the kind of specialized care that was required. Consider the example of our LGBTQ Clinic. Drs. Nicole Nisly and Katie Imborek founded the first LGBTQ Clinic in the state with Internal Medicine as the sole source of initial funding. The growth in the years since has been tremendous as more departments and colleges quickly joined and as medical students, residents, and fellows began rotating through. HIV prophylaxis medication distributed via telehealth or in person, an anal dysplasia clinic, gender-affirming outreach to our prison population, and now more than 10,000 trans Iowans receive their care right here. All of this started with the fundamental recognition that every person deserves to be treated with dignity. 

Finally, as we continue to celebrate our graduating residents and fellows, we are also beginning to prepare for the arrival and onboarding of our new interns and incoming fellows. A great deal of work is taking place behind the scenes as trainings are scheduled, lectures prepared, and websites are refreshed. Stay tuned!

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