After the Medical Students ‘Die-In,’ What Next at UCSF?

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By Leland Kim and Laura Kurtzman, UCSF News

UC San Francisco medical students helped sparked a national movement in December when they launched #whitecoats4blacklives to bring attention to racial health care disparities.

Their act of courage inspired UCSF leaders to address racism head-on in its annual leadership retreat and has renewed a much-needed dialogue throughout campus.

A group of UCSF medical students gathered in a closed meeting last month to talk about race, racism and racial disparities.

They were troubled by recent grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers who were involved in the deaths of two unarmed African American men, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City, and wanted to channel their frustration into something constructive.

The students, including many from the UCSF Underrepresented In Medicine (UIM) mentoring program, decided to hold a “die-in” at UCSF while wearing their white coats, symbolic of those in the health profession. They and their peers of all ethnic backgrounds tapped into student networks across the country.

In just five days, a national movement called #whitecoats4blacklives was born.

It catalyzed thousands of students, faculty and staff in more than 80 colleges across the country. At UCSF, students from all professional Schools (Dentistry, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy) and the Graduate Division participated, as well as some faculty and staff members.

The hashtag dominated social media on Dec. 10, garnering widespread media attention and sparking a much-needed national conversation about racism being more than a just criminal justice issue.

“As students, we were able to use the momentum from the #whitecoats4blacklives movement to demonstrate the urgency of dealing with the issues of race, micro-aggressions and inequality that affects UCSF faculty, staff, students, and most importantly the patients we all serve,” said student organizer Sidra Bonner, a second-year student in the School of Medicine.

“It is my hope that this movement leads to improvement of the social medicine curriculum, specifically continued learning and skill development around this issue of bias, creation of a robust mentorship/advising system for all students, as well as commitment to strengthening the pipeline for underrepresented students in medicine by increased availability of scholarships and administrative support,” said Bonner.

The die-in had a ripple effect across UCSF.

Students hosted a town hall event on Dec. 12 to open up a dialogue about race and racism. School of Pharmacy Dean B. Joseph Guglielmo (far left), School of Nursing's Monica McLemore (second from left), and School of Nursing Dean David Vlahov (center) were among the participants. Photo by Paul Day.
Students hosted a town hall event on Dec. 12 to open up a dialogue about race and racism. School of Pharmacy Dean B. Joseph Guglielmo (far left), School of Nursing’s Monica McLemore (second from left), and School of Nursing Dean David Vlahov (center) were among the participants. Photo by Paul Day.

A student-initiated town hall held two days after attracted faculty members, deans and many of the University’s top leaders, who talked openly with students about the UCSF’s ongoing challenge with diversity.

Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS, has made race and racial inequities a priority in his administration.

“This is an issue that goes beyond any one school or department; this is a campus issue,” he said. “Diversity is going to be an important priority for the entire UCSF community. I thank our students for initiating this conversation.”

And organizers of the School of Medicine’s annual leadership retreat this month decided to change the event’s agenda to discuss the enduring question of race in America – and how racial dynamics play out at UCSF.

“Our students are asking us to acknowledge, to think and to do something about the problem of racial and ethnic injustices,” said Bruce Wintroub, MD, interim dean of the School of Medicine, introducing a daylong colloquy that was rich in both data and personal stories about what it means to be black and brown in America.

“It is very easy to talk about racial disparities at other places,” he said. “It is much harder for us to take an honest look at the problems we have at UCSF.”

The leadership retreat, which took place on Jan. 8 and 9, was the first one ever to focus solely on race/ethnicity and health disparities.

It came as the School of Medicine has launched a six-year, $9.6 million effort to hold its departments accountable for achieving diversity, provide the resources to recruit and retain a more diverse faculty, create a culture of diversity and inclusion and expand the pool of scientific talent, which gets smaller at each level of training.

“This retreat was the first time in my 32 years at UCSF that I feel we have started to have an authentic conversation about race and the impact of racism and unconscious bias on our students, faculty and patients,” said Renee Navarro, MD, PharmD, vice chancellor of Diversity and Outreach. “I applaud the students who organized and implemented the #whitecoats4blacklives movement. They were the spark that led to this event.”

Some of those students were invited to participate in the leadership retreat and share their experiences with the group to help facilitate organizational change.

At times, nervous energy was palpable as students recalled instances of racism on campus. Some community members, participants noted, have accused UCSF being an “elitist ivory tower.”

White faculty members listened attentively, and some were candid enough to admit that they hadn’t really thought about racism and its impact on students and patients in a meaningful way.

“Being on the panel and speaking to an audience of accomplished and powerful people at UCSF were terrifying,” said Angela Broad, a second-year medical student. “It was really difficult sharing those experiences but the informal conversations I had throughout the day were very heartening. So many faculty, deans and staff thanked me for sharing my story.”

Compelling presentations and anecdotes by faculty of color helped shape the day’s conversation.

Neal Powe, MD, MPH, MBA, vice chair of the Department of Medicine and chief of medical services at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, shared a story about being pulled over by the police in North Carolina while in town to give a lecture. A police officer suspiciously questioned Powe about his destination, instructed him to keep his hands on the steering wheel and asked him if he had drugs in the car.

 

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