Community, Features, Impact

Boston University Medical Campus focuses on language to start combating racial inequities

In an effort to foster a more diverse and inclusive environment at Boston University, the BU Medical Campus hosted a keynote and panel, “Justice and Equity: Using Language to Ignite Culture Change,” addressing the importance of using correct language in the medical community.

Justice and Equity: Using Language to Ignite Culture Change
A statue of a woman holding a scale. Boston University Medical Campus hosted a keynote and panel on Jan. 26 called “Justice and Equity: Using Language to Ignite Culture Change” focusing on language to foster racial inclusivity at BU. COURTESY OF TINGEY INJURY LAW FIRM VIA UNSPLASH

The event, held Wednesday over Zoom, was a collaboration between Boston Medical Center, the BU Medical Group, BU School of Medicine, Public Health and Goldman School of Dental Medicine.

The panel and keynote featured panelists Angelique Harris, the BUMC director of faculty development, Karen Antman, the BMC provost and BUSM dean and Kate Walsh, the BUMC president and chief executive officer.

The event focused on the Glossary for Culture Transformation, an online website geared at creating opportunities to learn “beyond our own identities and experiences,” associate dean for communication at BUSM Maria Ober wrote in an email.

“This big event is really to highlight the first major step that the institution is going to take to emphasize the commitment that we all have to promoting racial equity, and we’re going to start with our language,” Harris said.

The website is grouped by topics such as “Disability & Accessibility” and “Race & Ethnicity.” Users can find not “just what the word actually means, but how you use it,” she said.

“To create this culture of inclusivity we have to have a shared language and meaning,” Harris said. “In this glossary we not only define a variety of terms and concepts that relate to diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice, we also provide context for these terms: how to use them in an inclusive way, as well as a reference for this definition.”

Harris said that the Glossary will not stay stagnant, instead it will “continue to grow, change and evolve.”

Fellow panelist Antman also acknowledged that the job will be “continuous.”

“This is just one step in a process,” Antman said. “And we can only celebrate the Glossary and then we have to move on and see what next needs to be done.”

All three panelists identified language as a crucial component of culture transformation. Harris also spoke about the necessity for education on language because BUMC is not “just a hospital,” but an institution “teaching people going out into the world.”

“What’s key about language is people’s humanity, and remembering and realizing that we’re talking to people, and that regardless of what you may think about people or what activities they may have engaged in or whatever, there are people, they’re human,” Harris said.

In the past, BMC has focused on language with the Words Matter pledge, an agreement among the medical community to end stigma surrounding substance use disorder by avoiding words such as “addict.”

The pledge has since been adapted to also include a commitment to end “systemic oppression” and a promise to “build a culture of justice, equity and belonging.”

Panelist Walsh spoke of the feeling of “tripping over my own privilege.” As the president of a $4.9 billion institution, Walsh pointed out the importance of her recognition of racial inequities.

“As a leader, if I can begin to understand the burden that the people who are trying to do this work are carrying, I think I’ll just be more effective,” Walsh said.

Impromptu panelist Sheila Chapman, clinical associate professor of medicine at BU, noted that the ability for people of color to speak up at BUMC has improved over the years.

“I’ve been on faculty here a little over 30 years and the freedom I have to speak my own truth now is so much greater than it was 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago,” Chapman said. “When people of color would speak their truth, we get shut down because frankly, white people were uncomfortable.”

Walsh highlighted that going forward the work towards racial justice must take center stage.

“The work has to be as important as all the other work we do,” Walsh said. “Thinking about someone’s identity and structural racism has to be just as important as our sepsis code and the right antibiotics. It’s all inextricably linked.”


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