Fostering Black joy in an anti-DEI environment: community, resilience, and equity

As Black History Month draws to a close, it is crucial to recognize the ongoing challenges faced by Black physicians and the importance of fostering diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI), and belonging in the medical field. National rhetoric condemning DEI efforts has made for an increasingly difficult environment for Black medical trainees to thrive. This Black History Month, we had the honor of hosting three events aimed at celebrating Black excellence in medicine and cultivating a sense of community among Black doctors and aspiring medical professionals in our home base of Chicago.

The significance of these events cannot be overstated, especially in light of the stark underrepresentation of Black physicians in the medical profession. According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), Black individuals make up just 5 percent of practicing physicians in the United States, despite constituting over 13 percent of the population. This glaring disparity not only deprives the medical profession of diverse perspectives and talents but also has tangible negative impacts on both Black physicians and the patients they serve.

The underrepresentation of Black people in medicine hinders their opportunities to build community and find mentorship. It also heightens loneliness and rates of depression for those who navigate the long medical training journey. They also face unique challenges, including implicit bias, discrimination, and limited opportunities for advancement. Research has shown that Black physicians are more likely to practice in underserved communities and care for marginalized patient populations. These barriers not only hinder the professional growth and well-being of Black physicians but also contribute to disparities in health care access and outcomes for Black patients.

In addition to these systemic challenges, DEI efforts are under attack nationwide and in medicine specifically. A recent anti-DEI resolution put forth by members of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) called for the organization to “sunset” all DEI efforts, even though only 3 percent of dermatologists identify as Black. The statement was signed by dozens of leaders in the field, including residency program leadership and a department chair. The statement has drawn widespread criticism for failing to recognize the importance of representation and cultural competence in delivering high-quality patient care. This comes on the heels of national anti-DEI rhetoric across the country, buoyed by national figures such as Ben Shapiro and Elon Musk, which have increased after the Supreme Court ruled to ban affirmative action in education.

In light of this environment, the already small group of Black people in the medical training pathway are facing even more challenges to feel a sense of belonging in their training environments. Research shows that opportunities for increased peer-connectedness decrease their rates of anxiety & depression for Black medical trainees. This year, we hosted three separate events aimed at fostering community among Black physicians and aspiring doctors.

The first event was a mentorship dinner that brought together pre-medical students, residents, fellows, and attendings across the University of Chicago. The concept was convened by us, as leaders of out hospital’s Housestaff Diversity Committee. It was a robustly attended event, filled with inspiration and guidance, as individuals at different stages of their medical journey came together to share their experiences, concerns, and aspirations. The sense of camaraderie and support was palpable, as mentors provided valuable insights and advice to those following in their footsteps.

The collective joy and sense of community felt during this gathering further emphasized that cultivating an inclusive environment within the medical community is pivotal for nurturing the next generation of medical learners from underrepresented backgrounds. When aspiring physicians witness representation and feel supported, they are more likely to pursue and persist in their medical careers. Thus, investing in DEI is not just about the well-being of current Black providers, it is about safeguarding the future of medicine by ensuring that all aspiring health care professionals have equitable opportunities to thrive.

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Later in the month, we hosted a casino-themed game night for Black doctors across specialties in Chicago. This event not only provided an opportunity for networking and socializing but also served as a platform for fostering connections and building relationships for those who are facing loneliness and lack of support. Our local National Medical Association (NMA) chapter, the Cook County Physician’s Association, co-sponsored the event for local residents and attendings, along with University of Chicago Housestaff Diversity, University of Illinois at Chicago Medicine DEI, Northwestern McGaw Underrepresented Residents & Fellows Forum and Lurie Children’s DEI Committee. The night was a celebration of diversity and unity within the Black medical community, as well as an opportunity for individuals to meet mentors and receive resources to support them through their medical journey.

The final event was a dinner specifically for Black attendings in the emergency department at our hospital. This gathering allowed us to come together, share our stories, and lean on one another for support. In a profession where Black physicians are often underrepresented and face disproportionate challenges with advancement, having a space where we can find solidarity and strength is invaluable.

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These events are more than just social gatherings. They serve as beacons of hope and solidarity for Black physicians. They are a testament to the resilience and excellence of Black doctors in the face of adversity. By providing spaces for networking, mentorship, and mutual support, these events empower Black doctors to navigate the challenges of their profession with resilience and determination. They also send a powerful message to the medical community at large: that diversity, equity, and inclusion are not merely buzzwords but essential principles that must be upheld to ensure the health and well-being of all individuals.

At a time when diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are under attack, both within and outside the medical community, we must reaffirm our commitment to creating spaces where all voices are heard and valued. Our community remains steadfast in our dedication to advancing DEI in medicine and ensuring that Black physicians have the support and opportunities they deserve.

As we look to the future, let us continue to celebrate Black excellence in medicine, not just during Black History Month, but every day of the year. Let us redouble our efforts to promote DEI in medicine and dismantle the barriers that prevent Black physicians from realizing their full potential. By fostering a more inclusive and equitable health care system, we can create a brighter future for Black doctors, patients, and communities alike.

Bernice Fokum, Udoka Oji, and Abdullah Pratt are emergency physicians.

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