January 20, 2021

Lecture highlights academic medicine’s role in racial justice

On Monday, Jan. 18, Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine and School of Nursing hosted the 20th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture.


by Kathy Whitney

On Monday, Jan. 18, Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine and School of Nursing hosted the 20th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture.

VUMC Chief Diversity Officer André Churchwell, MD, hosted the virtual event and welcomed those who joined via Zoom. Rolanda Johnson, PhD, MSN, RN, introduced the recipients of the MLK awards.

The first award went to a 15-member team — connected through their passion for health equity — that identified and worked together to rectify longstanding concerns about the inappropriate use of race as a variable in the calculation of estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR), which estimates a patient’s level of kidney function and helps determine the stage of kidney disease.

The second award was presented to Ari Nettles, PhD, NCSP, HSP, professor of Clinical Pediatrics, founder and director of the Office of Inclusion and Health Equity for VUMC and Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. She was recognized for her work toward the education and training of the medical enterprise on cultural awareness.

David Acosta, MD, was the keynote speaker for Monday’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture.

“Unfortunately, we must recognize our need more than ever to read and understand King’s writings and his life. It is through studying King’s work we begin to understand this process and we can gain strength and hope that we can and will overcome scenes played out here and recently in Washington, D.C. We can and will overcome this moment in America,” Churchwell said in his opening remarks.

The event’s keynote speaker was David Acosta, MD, chief diversity and inclusion officer for the AAMC. He spoke on “Making Good Trouble in 2021 — Time for Academic Medicine to Boldly Call for Racial Justice.”

The AAMC sent a call to action to academic medicine in June 2020 to make a stand against racism in medicine and hate in all its forms, Acosta said.

“We stated that no longer can we be bystanders, and as stated by Rosa Parks and Rep. John Lewis, silence is not an option. Why academic medicine? Because in academic medicine we have a voice. Leadership matters and we must use our power and privilege as medical professionals to fight racism in medicine head on and advocate for systematic changes in our institutions and local communities we serve to address anti-Black racism and systemic racism,” Acosta said.

Academic medicine needs to be willing to hear, see and discuss injustice before it can call for racial justice and see it into action.

“We need to make visible what often is invisible,” said Acosta, adding that a first step is defining what racial justice is and then creating the vision for what it looks like.

“Racial justice is the systematic fair treatment of people of all races that results in equitable opportunities and outcomes for everyone where all people are able achieve their full potential in life and no one is disadvantaged or kept from achieving this full potential because of their multiple identities or their social positions,” he said.

Acosta closed by encouraging academic medicine to not underestimate the power of medical students, our future physicians, and to encourage leadership to practice radical empathy, to humbly serve others and to be proximate.

“We cannot create justice without getting close to the places where injustices prevail,” Acosta said, in quoting attorney and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson.