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The Fraternity of the Few

Dr. Cristen Adams.


The message from Farah came on June 8th at 7am:
“Can we have a meeting of the minds to find ideas to increase Black student enrollment at Berkeley Optometry?”

George Floyd had been killed two weeks earlier, a global pandemic was raging and the streets were erupting with grief. Farah saw a post with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter on the Berkeley Optometry Instagram profile. “What are you doing to increase diversity in the program?” she responded. The disembodied voice from the other side said, “What should we be doing?” Farah then reached out to three people who she thought would help provide those answers.

Joy is Caribbean-Canadian, born and raised in Ottawa, Canada. Farah was born in Oklahoma City, and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. Cristen and Sheryl are both California natives from the Bay Area. Although our origin stories are different, we all share one common thread: we are part of a small fraternity of Black people who have graduated from UC Berkeley’s School of Optometry. Being part of an exclusive club often brings a sense of accomplishment, but membership to this particular group exacted a tremendous toll. Being “one of the only ones” did not make us feel special, it made us feel alone.

There were off-hand remarks about complexion and unwanted hands touching our hair. There was the joke of people always mistaking one of us for the other:

“Come to the front of the class Sheryl”
“Actually, my name is Joy”

We ate lunch in the shadows and studied in solitude. Countless subjective decisions never seemed to go our way. You may have never known we were suffering, but each day brought new professional and personal challenges. The only Black faces we saw during our training were the patients in our textbooks or our exam chairs. Each one of us outsourced culture from other student groups on campus as we struggled to fit in. Imagine if the most difficult and most expensive years of your education were spent fighting for recognition, searching for a community and dodging hands reaching for your coiled, kinky hair. Berkeley Optometry provided us with an outstanding education, but did not provide a safe and inclusive space for learning.

When we reconnected over Zoom after Farah’s message it was at first a space of catharsis, then an organizing platform. We decided that our stories could no longer be hidden as the pain of anti-Black racism filled our streets, the media and America’s collective consciousness. We penned the project “The Black Advancement Initiative” and started weeks of research and planning.

Optometry has one of the lowest percentages of Black and underrepresented minority (URM) students of any of the major health care professions. The Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry
(ASCO) student data report for 2018-2019 revealed that only 2.7% of optometry students identified as Black or African American. That percentage drops to 0.8% at Berkeley Optometry. Given that Black people make up 13% of the US population, these numbers are alarming. As primary eye care providers in the US we should strive to reflect the diverse communities that we serve. The lived experiences of Black people cannot be fully taught or trained, but it can be communicated by having Black faces share these stories first-hand. There is data to suggest that having a diverse student body helps all students to work more effectively with people of different backgrounds (Whitla, Silen, Teperow, Howard, & Reede, 2003). By all accounts, having different voices in the room changes the way topics are discussed, generates different questions, and results in more inclusive solutions.

Not only can diversifying the classroom improve quality of care, it can also improve access to care. Research suggests that URM students are more likely to practice in underserved communities (Professions, 2006), and as one of the premier optometric institutions in the country, Berkeley Optometry should enroll students who are equipped to work in these high-need settings.

“There is no excellence without diversity, and there is no better place for such excellence than Berkeley Optometry.””

It is said that “You cannot be what you cannot see.” Having Black and Brown doctors in underserved communities has effects unrelated to eye health; it allows a diverse group of people to see optometry as a worthwhile and attainable profession for people of all races. These are only a few of the reasons why Berkeley Optometry should make it a priority to increase the percentage of Black students in its student body and in the optometric profession at large. There is no excellence without diversity, and there is no better place for such excellence than Berkeley Optometry.

With this idea in mind, the four of us sifted through data, reached out to optometry schools across the country and consulted with a diversity consultant to form an action plan. When we approached the senior faculty at Berkeley Optometry it was with one goal in mind: making the school a safer, more inclusive space for Black and Brown students, staff, and faculty.

We recommend that the school take a long hard look at its climate, criteria and culture to determine how to increase Black representation. The data from this assessment should form the foundation of a comprehensive diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging action plan. To shepherd this process, we recommend the creation of an office of diversity that is tasked with making sure the goals of the action plan are met. This body would coordinate mentorship and recruitment initiatives, as well as provide a safe space for discourse. We want to work to create a sense of belonging and foster inclusion within all levels of the school. There is no point in bringing diversity to the table if we are not going to create a comfortable space for them to eat. Finally, we suggest regular review of the progress in this matter by an independent body to keep us accountable.

It is heartening to see that the current administrationis open to change and willing to work on creating a better environment for Black students. The senior administrators at Berkeley Optometry recognize thatthere is room for significant improvement. Substantive plans have been put in place to realize some of these goals. Although we cannot take all of the credit, we hope we helped provide the motivation for the meaningful change to come.

People have billed 2020 as the year of the eye doctor because “20/20” represents the clarity we seek in our eye exams. Although this year has had its challenges, we see it as an opportunity for monumental change.

As Cristen, one of the brilliant minds on this project, gets ready to bring her first child into the world, we can only cling to the hope that doing this diversity work will make life a little bit better when she or he arrives. If her little one decides to follow in her footsteps, we hope that the path will be easier, more inclusive, and far more reflective of the population that we are privileged to serve.

About the Photo

Dr. Cristen Adams on the Berkeley campus. Photo by Elena Zhukova.