Russell Ledet, PhD, co-founder The 15 White Coats, an organization striving to improve racial representation in the medical field and provide opportunities for minorities to enter the medical profession, recently sat down to discuss these issues with MD /alert.
Ledet was also part of a panel discussion as part of the Virtual AACR Annual Meeting Part II last month, discussing improving racial inequality in cancer research.
The group’s website describes The 15 White Coats as “devoted, insightful, determined leaders who are committing to reimagining what children from our communities see. We want them to know they are brilliant, talented, have worth, loved, and there is a future for them.”
Ledet and his friend came up with the idea to start The 15 White Coats after a visit to the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana. A group of 15 Black medical students from Tulane went back to the plantation and took a picture in front of the slave quarters in their white lab coats. The image went viral, resulting in media coverage from some of the biggest outlets around the country.
The goal of the group is threefold, according to Ledet. The first is to provide economic relief to minorities applying to medical school, which Ledet said can cost between $3,000 and $10,000 just to apply. At this early stage, Ledet said they know they can’t pay for all the application costs, but at least some is a start. They are also raising money to put copies of the picture in learning spaces across the country as a large poster.
“We think cultural imaging is important. If you can’t see it, it’s kind of hard to be it. If you regularly see a photo of a black physician on a wall in your classroom, naturally, there’s a greater likelihood that you think as you get older that it’s possible to be a black doctor,” he said.
They are also working to publish literature from minority authors and to make it available to all children.
“There is so much data to suggest that students with higher literacy have higher earning potential,” he said. “We also realize that students from marginalized communities are not generally assigned books that are representative of their experience in America or their story in America or that are similar to their life in America.”
“Kids that are non-majority and kids that are the majority can understand that my classmate who doesn’t look like me and isn’t generally represented as a doctor or a lawyer or as an engineer or whatever can be that,” he added. “And so both perspectives are changed for the students who are generally marginalized and the students who are societally taught to marginalize, so both parts are hopefully shifting how people think.”
The discussion during the AACR conference came as protests have been staged around the world, demanding racial equality far beyond the halls of the country’s medical institutions. Still, Ledet said it can be part of the continuing discussion of much more significant issues.
“Every day is the right time. Every day we should be working toward eliminating injustices. Every moment we don’t do that, things get worse,” he said.
One of the topics discussed during the AACR session was the importance of recruiting minorities in college to pursue advanced degrees in medicine. Ledet said it is not a matter of a shortage of qualified candidates, but rather a matter of having the desire to find those men and women.
“I know where there’s a plethora of brilliant minds. Historically Black colleges and universities. Hispanic serving institutions. There are a plethora of minds there. The only problem is you’ve gotta ensure that the environment is ready to include them,” he said. “Don’t just recruit them. Include them. Include their culture, include their identity as part of what’s going on.”
“If you think about the resilience of students who come through those institutions, there’s nobody that’s going to work harder for them,” he added. “There’s nobody who's been through more to get where they’re trying to go. They’re climbing a ladder that doesn’t have any rungs on it. Meanwhile, the other students are on an elevator.”
Ledet said he wants to be triple-board certified in general pediatrics, general psychiatry, and child psychiatry. He said he wants to be “very close to children from a mental health perspective, and if I’m not doing that, I’m not doing anything.” He said he hopes to focus on children in marginalized communities and those in the cancer setting.
In the next 10 years, Ledet said he hopes to see The 15 White Coats pay for the medical school education of up to 100 minority students.
“The visionaries for it are The 15 White coats, and we traveled this road already. We know what needs to be deposited into those children of the future to get them there,” he said. “I do think in my lifetime there will be cultural imagery of beautiful, brilliant, royal, Black and Brown minds in learning spaces throughout this entire nation in my lifetime.”