Confronting Racial Injustice
A Multipart Series
Pharmacy schools are putting action behind commitments to diversity and inclusion to serve and support communities.
By Athena Ponushis
After the killing of George Floyd, Dr. Toyin Tofade, dean and tenured professor at Howard University College of Pharmacy, emailed students and faculty acknowledging what had happened. Her community wrote back. Acknowledgment was not enough. They needed their dean to voice her own emotions, opinions and outrage to validate their feelings of anger and grief. They needed her to publicly process her emotions to help them in their process, so Tofade wrote a more personal email, attempting to channel the passion of the moment into positive action. It resonated.
“We must act by showing that we are here to lead, we are here to learn and we are here to serve,” she wrote. “We the faculty must act by intensifying our efforts to build a cadre of strong pharmacy graduates who will take up notable positions in society…I believe it is in those positions of influence that we—faculty, staff, alumni and students—can collectively change minds, share truths and reframe systems.”
Tofade held a virtual town hall with students. She asked them, ‘How can we support you?’ They asked her, ‘What do we do when we are hit with tear gas? What are the antidotes to it?’ A fourth-year student on the call who was in a toxicology rotation had researched how to treat exposure to tear gas. He shared the treatments he had found. Tofade told the students they were brave. She was transparent about her life experience: she had never protested, she immigrated into the United States from Africa, she did not descend from an ancestry of slavery. She listened to the students but did not pretend to be an expert or try to offer explanations. She simply gave them space to speak, and later circulated information to students about how to treat tear gas injuries.
Tofade also held a meeting with faculty and brought in a counselor. She led by saying thank you for working while you are home-schooling your children, thank you for working while you are caring for your families. Individuals who usually remained quiet opened up. The cathartic experience drew the faculty closer together.
Just as colleges need guidance and engagement from their deans, communities need their institutions to be deliberate and involved. Pharmacy schools are committing to outreach as the nation grapples with systemic racism and a public health crisis, working to advance pharmacy and diversity, build trust with their communities and clear misperceptions. These steps speak to the heart of Tofade’s message: change minds and change structures, starting with community.
“Schools must go out and adopt a community,” Tofade said, “make up their minds that they are going to consistently go to a community, learn and grow, not just do the touch and go, ‘I did this last year, so I’m good.’ No. Adopt a community, be consistent with your service, learn and see how else you might serve.”
During Tofade’s tenure as dean, the college has grown international rotation partnerships from five in 2016 to 17 rotation sites and more than doubled internship opportunities. She worked with a team to design a contemporary exchange program focused on diversity with the University of Wyoming School of Pharmacy where Howard students visit Wyoming in the winter—exposing them to rural, critical access hospitals—and Wyoming students travel to Washington, D.C., in the spring, allowing them to see inner-city healthcare systems and meet with congressional leaders.
“Our Health Equity Leadership Program has been transformational for students who grew up in predominantly white or mostly Black communities. They are able to see urban and rural health disparities, have honest conversations around assumptions and say, ‘This is what I used to think but this is what I think now.’ I think that is just beautiful,” Tofade said. She encourages schools that do not have large minority populations on campus to partner with minority schools, embark on research together and create an experiential exchange. “Those are the kinds of things that build community among us as beings.”
Closer to home, Tofade suggests that schools build a community presence through focus groups, assembling community leaders and inviting them to speak to let the community tell the school how they want them to be involved. “Sometimes we think we know what they need, but they are the ones who can tell us what they need. ‘We are here to serve you. How can we serve you?’ Those are simple questions but start from there,” Tofade said. “Start with humility and you will be surprised what might show up.”
Serving their community this summer, eight Howard student pharmacists volunteered more than 100 hours working from space in a hotel to provide COVID-19 emergency medication management services for more than 250 homeless patients. The Capitol City Pharmacy Medical Reserve Corps, based at Howard’s College of Pharmacy, partnered with the D.C. Department of Human Services, community health centers and an independent pharmacy to provide the vital service. Students provided medication counseling by phone, then delivered medications to patients. Students also ran a COVID-19 testing clinic in the basement of a church in an underserved area of D.C., testing nearly 400 people in two months.
The University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy, 2020 recipient of the Lawrence C. Weaver Transformative Community Service Award, has started an interprofessional initiative that responds to community needs. During the yearlong capstone program in the P3 year, students are assigned to teams, teams are assigned to community organizations and the organizations identify health-related issues for the students to address. Organizations range from Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) to food banks to the Central Texas chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) to the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. With guidance from faculty members, student teams work with organizations to implement solutions to health-related issues.
“We’ve been doing this program two years now, and through it, our students have indirectly touched over half a million lives,” said Dr. Lynn Crismon, dean, James T. Doluisio Regents Chair and Behrens Centennial Professor at UT Austin College of Pharmacy. Working with the largest FQHC in the county, students designed an outreach program to follow up with patients and improve prescription refill rates. Working with elementary schools, students developed a nutrition curriculum to combat childhood obesity. When NAMI identified the difficulty of keeping in contact with individuals who were discharged from psychiatric hospitals, students worked with hospitals to connect discharged patients with NAMI’s support groups.
Following Through on Diversity
Crismon recognizes that schools must improve the pipeline if they are going to significantly increase the number of underrepresented minorities on campus, and if there’s no pool to draw from, they have to create the pool. Working to grow diversity and ensure a clear representation of different individuals, experiences and perspectives at his college, Crismon approved a Grow Our Own Pipeline initiative and a Scaffolding Success for Future Scientists program this year. “Another thing we did this year, and it was not without some controversy, we made the PCAT optional and we did that because all the evidence suggests that standardized exams are culturally biased. If we expect to use a holistic admissions process and increase our numbers of underrepresented minority students, I felt like it was the right thing to do,” Crismon explained. “I asked our admissions committee to study it, and again, it was not unanimous, but they decided to make it optional. Now it’s up to the students whether the exam is used in their reviews, with the intention only to help them, not hurt them.”
Dr. Skyller Walkes, assistant dean for Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion at UT Austin College of Pharmacy, designed the Scaffolding Success for Future Scientists program in partnership with the Austin school district. Working with three schools—elementary, middle and high school—the program will expose students to STEM (specifically health sciences) and build a mentoring program, bringing student pharmacists into the community to cultivate a diverse talent pool and usher potential pharmacists through the pipeline.