Race in optometry panel: Change starts with mentorship, awareness
Mentorship for students and awareness of bias in schools, organizations and industry are effective steps toward increasing diversity in optometry, said panelists in a State University of New York College of Optometry webinar on race issues.
Challenges of Black students
Sherrol A. Reynolds, OD, FAAO, president of the National Optometric Association (NOA) and chief of advanced ophthalmic care at Nova Southeastern College of Optometry, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said that one of the biggest ways to address diversity in academia is mentorship.
“The NOA was started in 1969 by a group of African-American doctors ... to address the very thing that we are facing now in 2020: the longstanding pandemic of racism, inequality, hatred and bigotry,” Reynolds said during the webinar. “Over [the NOA’s] 50 years, we’ve seen an uptick in other minorities in schools of optometry, but the admittance rate of African-American and Black students really has remained unchanged. So, I am excited to be a part of this important conversation on how we move the needle forward.”
Webinar participant Joy Harewood, OD, FAAO, attending optometrist at Bronxcare Health System and adjunct professor at the SUNY College of Optometry, said that when she was a student at University of California, Berkeley, she did not know the NOA existed because there were too few Black students or “other minority students” to support an NOA chapter.
Harewood shared some personal experiences from her time at school, including an instance in which she was told she was “one of the good ones,” times in which she was mistaken for another Black female student, and a harrowing traffic stop while working as an extern in which she, “got herself out of,” by sharing details of her job.
“Having an organization like the NOA in your corner to serve as an advocate, a safe space, someone to talk to, a place to have comradery, a place to find resources and opportunities, is invaluable,” Harewood said.
Andre Stanberry, OD, FAAO, clinic director of the University of Waterloo College of Optometry, echoed similar experiences. He said that during his first day as a student at SUNY, another Black student told him that, “many people that look like me and attend this program don’t graduate or fail to graduate on time.”
“Thinking about that over the years, I’ve tried to mentor other students,” he said. “We have to ensure that this is not us.”
Stanberry joined the student chapter of the NOA (NOSA) and, after becoming president of the chapter, he noticed that many Black students complained that they felt they were not graded as fairly on subjective assessments compared with other students.
“We brought these students in and many times found that their results were excellent, so there was definitely some discrepancy,” Stanberry said. “One thing that occurs while going through these programs is being ‘othered’ — being the only one.”
Darryl Glover, OD, cofounder of Defocus Media, Eyefrica Media and Black Eyecare Perspective, said during the webinar that Black Eyecare Perspective, “was created to develop dialogue between African-Americans and the entire eye care industry. We felt like we needed a place where we could talk amongst each other and come together to meet the industry regarding issues we encounter.
“Our three-part approach is to increase awareness of biases that take place at an executive level,” he continued, “to work with companies to make sure their values align with equity and inclusion, and to make sure we have better dialogue with our colleagues and work with minority eye care professionals and patients.”
Glover also said that with awareness and advocacy, the key to equity and inclusion is the “pipeline” — reaching and communicating with Black prospective and current students.
Panelist Adam Ramsey, OD, cofounder with Glover of Black Eyecare Perspective, CEO of Socialite Vision and founder of Health Focus South Florida, addressed the current climate of racial disparity.
“What is happening ‘out there’ is happening in eye care,” he said. “The conversation that we hear is that we’re not ‘those Black people,’ so we need to speak with our Black colleagues and have them share their stories. On the side of the road, they don’t know my profession.”
Ramsey said that schools and foundations may have programs for “underrepresented people,” but the effects seen are more often among women or in the broader term of “minority ethnicities,” with little focus on the Black community.
“There is no excellence without diversity,” Harewood added. “Not only is diversity good for Black students, it’s good for the whole class. When you have a diverse class, there are different voices, different questions asked. Everyone wins when you have a diverse class.”
Challenges of Black faculty, leadership
As the panelists turned the discussion to Black faculty and the challenges they face, they agreed on a lack of representation among optometric leaders, such as the American Optometric Association board of trustees.
“Diversity is a great talking point, but it takes work,” Reynolds said. “And as important as diversity is, we also need to talk about inclusion. Inclusion, by definition, is feeling welcomed. I do not see myself represented at meetings when I visit the exhibits, the sponsorship hall or many lectures, when Black and brown people are the most likely to suffer from conditions such as glaucoma.”
“Eighty-eight percent of those at the upper echelon of optometry, the distinguished teaching faculty, are white males,” Harewood noted. “One of the biggest measures of being successful is bringing somebody behind you, so we need to do that for others.”
Ramsey and Glover recently produced an advocacy video on Black representation in the industry that identified a specific goal of 13% representation. Ramsey said that many companies contacted Black Eyecare Perspective to thank them for “providing a bar.”
“The bigger the pipeline, the more people you have that can go into the different areas of the eye care industry,” Stanberry said. “Inclusion is definitely an important point. Many students going through the program don’t feel included from the start.”
Instead of considering residency or a faculty position, many students would rather move on than stay in an environment in which they do not feel included, he said.
Schools should take steps to ensure Black students feel welcome among the whole student body, Stanberry said, and take opportunities to hire within different sections of faculty, whether it be teaching, research or even administrators.
The panelists discussed what motivated them to join the field of optometry.
Reynolds said she was initially interested in pediatrics, but shifted her interest after her aunt began losing her vision. Similarly, while Harewood first considered genetics, she later realized she was, “less interested in cells than in helping people,” and found optometry.
Stanberry, who grew up in Jamaica, and Ramsey, who grew up in Trinidad, both said they were surrounded by people who looked like them in their youth, so they never doubted career choices. However, once Stanberry moved to Canada and Ramsey to the U.S., they saw the disparity that Black children might face while considering future goals.
Glover grew up in America with a mother from western Africa and a father from Detroit. He started to work as an eye care consultant and, “fell in love with it after seeing how much a difference it made for a patient to receive their glasses.” He decided, “I want to write those scripts.”
The panelists’ final words of advice centered on the need to reach students as early as possible, to include not only Black people in the conversation but everyone, and to consider representation in all areas from teaching to research to broader industry and social spheres.