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A ‘Moment of Reckoning’

Emory DPT Students Lead Charge for Social Justice, Division Equality
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For Emory DPT student Bridget Ochuko, one of just five Black students in the Class of 2021, silence was no longer an option. While the Atlanta native had never participated in a protest before, the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and the resulting protests throughout the country served as her moment of truth.

Further emboldened by a series of online Emory DPT program town hall meetings in which several students of color shared personal experiences that brought many participants to tears, Ochuko and a fellow Emory DPT student, Jonathan Sandberg, organized a series of protests outside of the Emory campus led by dozens of DPT students, faculty members and their families.

“I absolutely had to be part of this,” says Ochuko.“What am I going to tell my children in the future?”

Ochuko calls organizing and leading protests down Clifton Road the “newest, craziest thing” she’s ever experienced. But long after she leaves Emory, her courage to speak up and lead the charge for social justice will have made a lasting impact.

For the Emory DPT program, faculty members there call the racial tensions of 2020 their “moment of reckoning.” No longer is it acceptable to just talk about closing the inequality gap. According to Emory DPT Associate Professor Sara Pullen, DPT, MPH, CHES, faculty members, going forward, are “fully committed” to ensuring that every element of the student experience — from the recruiting and admissions process to the curriculum to alumni engagement — is geared toward enhancing diversity and inclusion.

student holding a protest sign that reads color is not a crime

DPT Students Rally Against Injustice

As protests broke out in cities across America in June, it became clear from conversations with students that the Emory DPT program leadership needed to establish some kind of venue for students to collectively share their experiences, fears and anger over racial inequality, not just in the country, but within the DPT program. With the help of the Emory School of Medicine’s Assistant Director, Multicultural Affairs LaToya Rolle, faculty members set up online town hall meetings for each of the three classes.

“This was a time for the students,” says Pullen, who is the only full-time Black/multi-racial faculty member. “No one wanted to hear the faculty say, ‘Well, I’m not racist. I’ve never meant to do anything racist.’ This was a time for students to talk about their experiences and for others to listen. And in doing so, I will say that many tears were shed in all three meetings.”

Pullen recalled the story that one Black student, who she describes as an “incredible, brilliant person,” shared at one of the meetings.

“He was walking behind a white woman at Michael Street Parking Deck at Emory at night and he noticed that she dropped her wallet,” recants Pullen. “He said to one of his white classmates who was walking with him, ‘Can you go give this to her?’ And she said, ‘Why don’t you give it to her? You saw her drop it.’ He said, ‘As a tall, Black man, I was always taught you don’t approach white women in dark spaces even if you’re trying to help.’

“So, he had his classmate give her the wallet. He and his classmate talked about this experience and she said, ‘Oh my gosh! Who would be afraid of you? You’re amazing!’ And he said, ‘This is our reality.’”

Ochuko, who will never forget the “uncomfortable silence” of the meetings, views the town halls as a major turning point for the entire DPT program family.

“From my perspective as a Black woman, that was an opportunity for walls to be broken down,” says Ochuko. “I’ve even had these discussions with some of my Black classmates talking about some of the experiences we’ve had but then recognizing that there’s really no point in talking about it because no one’s going to understand. People are going to hear it and say, ‘Oh man, that sucks.’ But they’re never going to understand the pain that we feel.

“Those town halls, we bore our souls to everyone and they accepted it. Those were the walls being broken down. I really felt like that we were seeing each other as equals and that we were committed to help the people next to us. It was a beautiful thing.”

Sandberg, who is white, remembers hearing the experiences shared at the meeting and feeling “totally exposed.”

“I was oblivious to a lot of the struggles and it definitely created a lot of introspection,” says Sandberg, a member of the Class of 2022. “I knew I needed to look at this issue and that it was important for people who look like me to realize that we can do something about this. We can stand against this.”

That led Sandberg and Ochuko, who were already friends, to organize a protest in which they would invite all of the students in their respective classes. Once the word got out, the Emory DPT program faculty asked to join the efforts.

“They came to us asking if we could make it an Emory DPT program-sponsored event,” says Ochuko. “That was the greatest thing that we could have ever heard because we wanted the backing of our program so much.”

Despite the fact that many DPT students were not in town due to the pandemic, the first protest, held June 19, exceeded organizers’ expectations as faculty and their families joined students in a peaceful, masked demonstration that Pullen admits left her in “awe of the strength of the students and the unity they had created.”

For the many DPT students who couldn’t attend, several sent money to Ochuko and Sandberg to purchase posters, water and snacks for those who could participate.

“We are a lot like a family,” says Sandberg, a native of Berkeley, Calif. “As stressful and difficult as the program is, we all do come together especially when we see injustice. I really do feel a lot of unity and support from all of my other peers. Once these protests began, we heard repeatedly, ‘I want to get involved. What can I do to help? How can I contribute?’”

photos of student, faculty and family protesting for Black Lives Matter in the streets of AtlantaLeft photo: Several Emory DPT students lined Clifton Road in Atlanta with signs promoting equality. Right photo:Emory DPT program faculty and family members, including Associate Professor Sara Pullen’s young children, participated in the peaceful protests.

Faculty ‘In This for the Long Haul’

At a time when African Americans comprise only 5.3 percent of licensed physical therapists in the country — similar to the percentage of Black students in the Emory DPT program — the division’s leadership agrees that the time for talking about inclusion and inequality is over. Action is the only acceptable response.

“We must follow through on the concerns that the students brought to us,” says Emory DPT Assistant Professor Sarah Caston, PT, DPT, who co-chairs the faculty’s new Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee.

For Pullen, that starts in the classroom where, after the Floyd tragedy, she rewrote her entire Health Promotion, Wellness and Prevention course — a required class for first-year students — to focus on racial health disparities, equality in health care and activism. This year’s pandemic, she says, is a perfect example in that underrepresented minorities are dying at rates significantly higher from the virus than their proportion of the overall population. While Pullen has served as a leading faculty voice for minority students through the years, recent student input on diversity and inclusion has exposed some blind spots in the DPT curriculum that no one — including herself — had thought of. For instance, one student pointed out that all of the curriculum’s photos related to wound care only showed Caucasian skin. Another student said that lectures discussing genetic diseases fail to mention sickle cell anemia, a genetic disorder that affects African Americans disproportionately.

“As faculty, we are systematically going through admissions, curriculum and faculty recruitment with the thought that, ‘This is our responsibility,’” says Pullen, who is leading a new group of underrepresented DPT students to address inequality.

Despite these efforts, Caston cautions that the Emory DPT program still has a long way to go to eliminate racial inequality, but she is encouraged that every faculty member is “in this for the long haul.”

“Diversity, equity and inclusion have been on the bullet list of strategic planning for years in multiple programs throughout the country,” she says. “There may have been committees formed, but it appears little meaningful action was taken in certain areas. It is time for these plans to jump off the page and into the classroom and into the clinic. It has to translate now.

“We have work to do and are being held accountable by our students. I am optimistic because we have a committed team — faculty and staff who are invested and care deeply about these issues.”

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