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Q&A with Dr. O

Rev Dr. Clyde Oden.
Reverend Dr. Clyde Oden, Jr. talks about his quest to overcome inequities in health status and health services, the importance of acknowledging the spiritual needs of patients, becoming a community healthcare advocate and leader, and his belief that “To whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

Q:What led you to optometry?

In high school, I applied for a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) scholarship. I was an excellent student and a star athlete: fit in every way except one — I had myopia. I was motivated to do whatever it would take to pass the U.S. Navy physical examination, so I visited my optometrist seeking solutions. He saw my profound disappointment when I failed the vision test but knowing my aptitude for math and science — he asked me if I had ever considered being an optometrist rather than an engineer or majoring in physics. I was surprised by his question. After all, I had never thought about it because I had never heard of or even seen an African American optometrist.

He then told me that there were no Black optometrists in my hometown of San Diego, and in the entire state of California, he knew of only three! He told me opportunities were wide open if I were to pursue that profession. Additionally, he was a graduate of Berkeley’s School of Optometry — and I should look at what it had available. I not only investigated the school, but I also successfully applied and was awarded a Berkeley Optometry Alumni scholarship — and as they say, the rest is history!

Q: Who were your early influencers in life? Who inspired you?

My parents were the most significant influencers in my life, period. My mother was from Mississippi, and my father was born in Alabama. They grew up during the Great Depression, and life was hard on both. Their grandparents were enslaved African Americans, and every generation in my family lived harsh lives. My father joined the U.S. Navy in the 1930s. He found that the only opportunity available to him was to be a messman — a servant to officers and enlisted sailors in the segregated
Navy. The structural racism of all the armed services limited my father’s ability to achieve, which did not change until after World War II. My father served our country for 26 years and retired as a chief steward. My father wanted me to walk through doors closed to him. I pursued the Navy ROTC option — until my vision challenges closed doors that optometry opened — and new horizons manifested themselves.

Q: You have four degrees from Berkeley (BS, Master of Optometry, OD, MPH), and you’ve talked about your experience at Berkeley as being transformative. How did Berkeley change you?

When I stepped on Cal’s campus, the mix of social activism and civil rights and student rights was beginning to percolate. The Free Speech Movement, the Anti-War Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Student Union movement, and the Third World Liberation Strike Movement were beginning to express themselves in a tangible way to me. I was touched and engaged in all of them. My consciousness and societal awareness were radically altered by what was happening around me.

I arrived at Berkeley intending to become the first Black optometrist in my hometown of San Diego with the expectation of becoming a successful practitioner. I had met the role model, Dr. Marvin Poston — the first African American to graduate from Berkeley Optometry. More than 25 years elapsed between his graduation and the next two African Americans to graduate in optometry. He had a successful practice, and his impact on the profession and other business activities was profound.

“I left Berkeley with a determination to be part of the solution addressing health disparities in low-income communities.”

However, by 1969 my self-awareness and my life’s mission had changed. After graduating with my OD, I enrolled in Berkeley’s School of Public Health. I was greatly influenced by Professor Henrik Blum and some of his colleagues at the SPH and their insistence that health care was a right and not a privilege. They opened my eyes to the inequities in health status and health services, particularly for African Americans and communities of color. I left Berkeley with a determination to be part of the solution addressing health disparities in low-income communities. Being a successful clinician was no longer my top priority. I wanted to become a community health care advocate and leader.

Q: In addition to being an optometrist, you served as CEO and President of Watts Health Systems (WHS) in Los Angeles for over 20 years. What inspired you to transition from seeing patients to more broadly engaging in community health?

I left Berkeley’s School of Public Health with a master’s degree and was offered an opportunity to serve a public health externship in Washington, DC, at the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) headquarters. They had just started developing Neighborhood Health Centers. I completed my service in OEO and was offered an opportunity to serve in an administrative capacity at the Watts community in Los Angeles. I served there for 33 years. A few years later, I became its President and Chief Executive Officer — and we experienced phenomenal growth. The organization eventually operated an HMO, 12 community health programs, including substance abuse, home health agency, and school-based health clinics. WHS also owned the controlling interest in a community savings and loan company. By the end of my service at that institution, we served about 250,000 persons per year in the nonprofit enterprise known as Watts Health Systems, Inc.

Q: How did you prepare for taking on this new challenge?

Frankly, my public health education did not prepare me for the responsibilities of managing a health care enterprise with an annual budget that was a quarter of a billion dollars. I enrolled at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School in an MBA curriculum designed for presidents and senior executives of large and growing companies. That experience prepared me for the management challenges that emerge in operating a large company providing health care services to medically underserved and under-resourced communities.

Q: You’ve spoken about a spiritual encounter that led you to seek a master’s degree in divinity, and ultimately you became an ordained minister, working full time as a pastor with the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) for 24 years. What parallels do you see between your work in direct patient care, delivering community health services, and ministry?

As a person of faith, providing care to persons with significant healthcare needs and limited financial resources kept me on my knees. I soon felt a calling to engage in a more meaningful way in my church, not knowing that it would eventually lead to becoming a pastor. While leading the Watts Health Systems, Inc., I enrolled in Claremont School of Theology and pursued a master’s degree in divinity. At the time, I did not know what doors might be open to me. I wanted to be of more service in my local church; however, soon after graduating from seminary, I was appointed to pastor at a church in Long Beach. I eventually had the privilege of serving as senior pastor at three different churches in Southern California.

My faith directed me to serve people of need: spiritually, emotionally, socially, financially, and medically. As a pastor for 24 years, one of the most common needs of my congregants was in healthcare. Some of my members came to the church with acute health care problems because of accidents or disease. However, many more of my members suffered from the challenges of advanced or chronic illnesses. The glaring inequities of healthcare services are magnified in the church setting.

It was important to me then, as it is now, to do something constructive. I wanted to help members to navigate their personal lives in such a way as to receive whatever kinds of services and assistance they need. A pastor must look at the whole person: mind, body, and spirit, and seek harmony for them. It is in that holistic theme that I see parallels in healthcare and ministry.

It was important to have healthcare ministries in the churches, and health providers must recognize and acknowledge the spiritual needs of their patients. I see this now more than ever.

Q: You’ve had a long and distinguished career, but you don’t seem the type to sit still. What are you doing now?

In 2019, I retired as pastor, relocated from Southern California, and moved back to Oakland. Not long after I moved, the COVID-19 pandemic struck our nation and, of course, every community. To paraphrase a scripture (Luke 12:48): “To whom much is given, much will be required.” This season of the pandemic calls for “all handson deck.”

I could not remain retired with the skills and experiences I had been blessed with, so I explored how I could be part of the solution in this new situation. In early 2021, I accept the position of assistant director of the Alameda County Collaborative Alliance (ACCA-AICP). This nonprofit organization is a faith-based, person-centered, lay care navigation intervention serving predominantly, but not exclusively, African American adults with advanced illness and their caregivers in Alameda County, Contra Costa County, and San Francisco County. Today, with over 40 churches in its network, including partnering with health systems and community organizations, the ACCA program is designed to help to bridge the gap between health delivery systems, community organizations, faith-based communities, and communities of color in managing advanced illness.

“For me, the School of Optometry was my coming of age: from the science of vision to the art of caring for patients.”

I’m helping in a way that combines all my previous experiences and healthcare knowledge and training. This season of sickness and pain is a special moment in my life, and I’m “all in.”

Q: As the fourth African American graduate of Berkeley Optometry (’67 and ’68), and a current member of the DEIB Council, you have been a witness to over five decades of slower-than-hoped-for progress regarding the school’s goal of improving the diversity of students and faculty at the school, and in the profession. In your opinion, why has change been so slow?

Structural racism is the answer and the problem. There has been institutional insensitivity to the reality that few optometry students come from underserved and ethnically underrepresented populations. Since my graduation in the 1960s, there have been few national efforts to address this under-representation. To my knowledge, there have been insufficient efforts by schools of optometry and professional associations of optometry (except for the National Optometric Association) to prioritize addressing this glaring problem — until very recently.

Back in the 1960s, I asked the leadership at Berkeley’s School of Optometry this question: “Why aren’t there more African American and Latino students in our classes?” The responses were, “We don’t know where to find qualified students.” In 1968 I appointed myself, with the blessings of Dean Meredith Morgan, to become a one-person recruiting team. I traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, and asked permission to speak to students at Spelman, Morehouse, and Clark colleges. I was just a Berkeley Optometry student, but I was able to get several students to indicate interest during my one week of visiting classes.

Unfortunately, after I graduated, there was no one to pick up the mantle. Few African American or Latinx students matriculated to Berkeley, and no one, at that time, pursued recruiting more students. When I returned to the Bay Area in 2020 and met with Dean John Flanagan, I asked the same question I asked in the 1960s, as I once again observed a scarcity of African American and Latinx students when I visited the School of Optometry for the first time in many years. Something was different, however. I found leadership who were not only open to the idea of diversity and inclusion but were actively moving to make some institutional changes. I am thrilled and excited about Dean Flanagan’s leadership. There is now a DEIB Council and a strategic plan that speaks to Berkeley’s commitment to change the trajectory related to having a more diverse and inclusive student body, staff, and faculty. I am so pleased with this institutional response to a disappointing history. Things are changing, and I am so grateful.

Q: Are you optimistic about the school’s current efforts to make lasting changes in this area?

I am very optimistic regarding the changes that are now happening. Changes are happening at this moment. I celebrate the recent hiring of Dr. Ruth Shoge as the Director of DEIB and Associate Clinical Professor. There are now African American and Latinx faculty and staff and a diversity of persons of racial and ethnic backgrounds seeing persons with diverse cultural and personal experiences. There is a new “welcome mat” at the entrance of the School of Optometry.

What I see is not an effort of tokenism or appeasement but rather a recognition that optometry and vision care students, faculty, and staff need to represent the full diversity found in our society. But this must be only the beginning. New pipelines need to be developed with HBCUs and HSIs — so that future optometry students, vision science students, and faculty members will emerge from these schools and colleges. There must be substantive, institutional,and permanent changes for Berkeley Optometry to become and remain a leader for the world to see and applaud. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging must not just be a slogan or a contemporary expression of “political correctness” but be as much of a symbol of UC Berkeley and Optometry as Sather Gate, Sproul Plaza and the Campanile.

Q: We’d like you to look back for a moment. What is a favorite Berkeley Optometry memory?

Professor Gerald Westheimer is my favorite memory. He was teaching my first course in physiological optics. Dr. Westheimer was so scholarly and, at times, difficult to understand because of his German/Australian accent. He was a challenge for me. Additionally, physiological optics is a complicated subject matter. However, I hung on to every word he spoke and studied hard to try and master the subject matter. I wanted to impress him. When I earned an “A” in his class, I jumped so high in the hallway in Minor Hall that I fell flat on the seat of my pants. But I knew then that I had arrived. I earned an “A” at Berkeley! Later, as a student, I made the Dean’s list.

For me, academic achievement at Cal was a total vindication — after the discouragement I received in high school. My guidance counselor in high school told me I could never succeed at Berkeley — the implication by my White counselor that I, as an African American, was not smart enough despite my high school grades and aptitude for science and math. She told me I could never be successful there because she couldn’t get in as an undergraduate. Fortunately, I didn’t listen to her.

I graduated with four degrees from UC Berkeley, but most important: I got an “A” from Dr. Westheimer in physiological optics! I’ll never forget the “thrill of victory.”

Q: Now that you are reflecting back, can you see the beginnings of the thought process that led you to embark on a career dedicated to caring for people from a “whole person” perspective?

Attending Cal in the ’60s amid the student movements, the civil rights and anti-war movements caused a shift in my worldview. By the time I left Cal, it was no longer about “me” but rather about “we.” The combination of my optometric education and my public health education promoted in me a new gestalt. The gestalt was further informed by my religious grounding related to the “Golden Rule” — doing for others and caring about others as much as I would care for myself. That was the beginning of a journey that took me to those major destinations in my life. Health as a community affair, seeing economic, social, and health disparities lit a fire in me that still burns. Things must change.

The School of Optometry, if you excuse the pun, opened my eyes to new possibilities. It was not just the grounding about vision care, but there was a “holistic ethos” that allowed me not just to have a narrow focus — but to look at a bigger picture. For me, the School of Optometry was my coming of age: from the science of vision to the art of caring for patients. Both perspectives were critical.

Q: What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my family, my friends, and my faith. Each day I rise grateful for the blessings of life. Each day I’m asking God for the strength and inspiration to make this world a better place. I’m proud of my journey, and I believe there is so much more to do.

About the Photo

Reverend Dr. Clyde Oden, Jr. (By Elena Zhukova).
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