Panelists praise slow but steady progress for people of color in optometric education and practice
New York, NY— The State University of New York (SUNY) College of Optometry reflected on the progress to recruit, advance, and support people of color during Race in Optometry—One Year Later, featuring perspectives from panelists from various sectors of optometry. The program is the fourth installment of a webinar series launched last year by the College’s Office of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) that took a hard and honest look at the experiences of Black optometrists as students, residents, faculty, practitioners, and industry professionals.
Hosted in conjunction with the Juneteenth holiday, the goal of the series was to foster dialogue and action that would lead to needed changes to advance underrepresented minorities in the field. More than 8,900 people have viewed the series since its start last summer, including over 400 and counting who tuned in to the latest live webinar held on June 16th.
“We know that people listened. We don’t know if they heard. Ultimately the real question is whether actions were taken,” said SUNY Optometry President David A. Heath, OD, EdM, who initiated the Task Force on Race and Equity at the College last year to raise the bar and address issues in diversity and inclusion. “We need to be accountable, we need to measure progress, and we need to know what actions are taken so this is not a moment that’s lost in time.”
Added Richard Madonna, OD, chairman of the department of clinical education and director of CPE: “It is literally 50 weeks to the day that we held our first Race in Optometry webinar. We thought the topic was so important that it should not only be examined by our faculty, staff, and students at the College but also by the extended SUNY family and the entire optometric community.”
This year’s recap featured several returning panelists, including moderator Joy Harewood, OD, who was named the first Director of Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Belonging (DEIB) at SUNY Optometry this spring. “When I last participated in this forum, we were coming to grips with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as experiencing what we call a ‘racial reckoning’ or ‘racial awakening’ in this country. We started talking more openly about the intersections of race in our personal and professional lives—and the impact it had on our profession,” said Dr. Harewood. “Tonight, we take that tally of the optometric profession and see what’s changed.”
When asked how things have improved or not over the past year, panelist Edward Marshall, OD, MS, MPH, professor emeritus of optometry and public health and former vice president for diversity, equity, and multicultural affairs at Indiana University said: “From my perspective, this surge of professional commitment and focused activity over the past year to address issues of race, equity and inclusion are unparalleled as a collaborative process in optometric history.” As highlighted by Dr. Marshall, shared movements that made a difference include DEIB webinars and town halls, the building of coalitions and collaborations, the creation of DEIB committees, task forces, and appointed staff positions, facilitated student engagement, and a call for Black OD representation to reflect the national demographic. “We’ve also seen significant financial commitments from academic institutions and the ophthalmic industry, foundations and individuals to support DEI student scholarships and academic pipeline programs, among other initiatives.” However, he added that Black student enrollment in optometry schools increased by only .7 percent since 2010-11. “Accountability relies on the outcome metrics. It may be too soon to fully assess the return on this new level of dedication and activity.”
Focusing on the corporate sector, Adam Ramsey, OD, co-founder, Black Eyecare Perspective, introduced the 13% Promise Initiative last year to increase minority representation in the optometric industry. “I believe the companies and schools have all made a concerted effort to make some change happen,” said Dr. Ramsey. “Now we’re looking for a continuation. It is going to take a long time for the numbers to change but proud to say that we’re working towards that.” Dr. Ramsey, who also serves as CEO for Socialite Vision and founder of Health Focus South Florida, cites higher enrollment in the Black Eye Care Perspective pre-optometry club, which has jumped from seven to 100 students this year, including 30 students accepted to optometry school.
Likewise, John Flanagan, OD, PhD, DSc, FCOptom, FAAO, FARVO, dean and professor, UC Berkeley and immediate past president of Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO), pointed to the growing number of Black applications by way of Optometry Gives Me Life, a national public awareness campaign launched by ASCO and sponsored by ophthalmic industry partners to attract qualified candidates to the profession. “We saw a 54% increase in the number of Black applicants—from 104 to 164—but still unacceptable considering the baseline,” he said. “I hope that we have managed collectively to help raise the consciousness, to start pushing things in the right direction. Sustainability is the key moving forward.”
Dr. Flanagan’s reflection on academic progress was followed by comments from Howard Purcell, OD, FAAO, president and CEO, New England College of Optometry (NECO). “We are not a huge profession. We need a core group of people who are going to help us to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves,” said Dr. Purcell, whose institution experienced an increase in Black and Latinx applications this year. From Dr. Purcell’s perspective, “the hard work is not in recruitment but retention” by creating an environment that is welcoming and encourages success. Steps taken to promote a sense of belonging for all students at NECO, said Dr. Purcell, include updating portraits of leaders and contributors to the school’s 127 years with women and people of color who have made a difference.
For panelist Ruth Y. Shoge, OD, MPH, FAAO, who was recently appointed director of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at UC Berkeley, change is coming slowly but surely. “We’re having this conversation not just at the institutional level, but the national level about making sure [diversity and anti-racism] training is embedded into the curriculum.” For example, Dr. Shoge highlighted efforts to ensure diversity and cultural competency training becomes a part of the accreditation process for schools and licensure requirements for practicing optometrists across the country. “It is not because we wanted this—it is because our students have asked for this. They want to be prepared to take care of people in the best possible way.”
Alongside recruitment efforts and changes in curriculum structure, the president of the National Optometric Association (NOA), Sherrol A. Reynolds, OD, FAAO, stressed the importance of mentoring students of color from class to career to ensure continuity and retention. “We’re hopeful and know that this is not a sprint; it’s a marathon,” said Dr. Reynolds, chief, Advanced Ophthalmic Care, NSU College of Optometry, who highlighted the NOA’s 50 years of bringing race and equity to the forefront of academia and the profession. “I am who I am because of mentors. At the NOA convention [as a student], I was able to see doctors who looked like me, welcomed me, and mentored me.” Specifically, Dr. Reynolds addressed the need to provide long-term guidance for students who finish four years of training but stop short of becoming practicing optometric professionals due to challenges with board exams, licensure, and related issues. “Not only is it important to get them into the schools but also to support and mentor them while in school and afterward. We need that network of mentorship.”
Panelists agreed that bolstering student confidence from application to graduation and beyond is critical in navigating the journey to become a doctor of optometry for people of color. “I think what we have to ask is “Where is the support?” and “Where is the village?” added Dr. Ramsey. “That is what we need to address in the future.”
Please save the date and join us next year for a progress report from the next installment of Race in Optometry on June 15, 2022. To view Race in Optometry—One Year Later and previous webinars in the series, visit the SUNY Optometry Office of Continuing Professional Education.
June 23, 2021
Organization contact: Adrienne Stoller, email@example.com, 212-938-5600
About SUNY Optometry
Founded in 1971 and located in New York City, the State University of New York College of Optometry is a leader in education, research, and patient care, offering the Doctor of Optometry degree as well as MS and PhD degrees in vision science. The College conducts a robust program of basic, translational and clinical research and has 65 affiliated clinical training sites as well as an on-site clinic, the University Eye Center. SUNY Optometry is regionally accredited by the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools; its four-year professional degree program and residency programs are accredited by the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education of the American Optometric Association. All classrooms, research facilities and the University Eye Center, which is one of the largest optometric outpatient facilities in the nation, are located on 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan. To learn more about SUNY Optometry, visit www.sunyopt.edu.