Erika Newman, M.D., has been thinking a lot about “L words” lately, and how they relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Among the words: Learning and love.
Newman, a faculty member in the section of Pediatric Surgery, was recently awarded a Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award in recognition of her work and leadership in the area of cultural diversity.
The work is constant, as is the learning.
“That’s been the journey and it still is. Every time I think I have a good grasp on my understanding I read and learn something new,” Newman said.
Take the Michigan Promise, which Newman was instrumental in getting off the ground.
It started as a deep dive into understanding more about the successes and barriers of women and underrepresented minorities in the Department of Surgery.
As more was learned, it evolved into a deep commitment to not just developing faculty, but creating a culture of inclusivity and a diverse recruiting pipeline.
“We started by pulling the numbers and looking at how our numbers had changed in terms of demographics. We realized we didn’t know enough, so we made a commitment to learn more and I’m really so thankful for that journey because it allowed me to dig deeper into my own understanding of what it means to be representative and inclusive and have equity,” Newman said.
Amplifying the values of diversity, equity and inclusion in the department doesn’t just look good and feel good. Newman emphasizes that it makes the department better.
“At Michigan we are the leaders and the best and we believe that and so to really do that, we needed to take a deep dive into diversity. We realized that if we didn’t address our approach to equity and inclusion, that it would limit us and how good we are and how we meet our goals,” Newman said.
A more diverse group of surgeons that better reflects the community it serves means better care for that community. Constant conversations about what diversity, equity and inclusion mean help check implicit biases.
And what about love? Newman firmly believes that infusing everything with it—and leading with it—helps the mission.
“Love belongs in the workplace, I think. Understanding how we can work together with compassion and love one another as professionals is a barrier and is something we don’t talk about,” Newman said.
Dedication to a cause and recognition for the work
The Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award was a surprise to Newman, and she was thrilled that colleague, Peter Ehrlich, M.D., and mentors Justin Dimick, M.D., and Ronald Hirschl, M.D., nominated her.
“Sometimes you’re working and you don’t think people are paying attention, so it was really moving and special that they nominated me,” Newman said.
Among the work those who nominated Newman were surely paying attention to is the HOPE Collaborative, an initiative led by Newman to address inequities in medicine and beyond. It kicked off with a symposium in February, featuring criminal justice reform advocate Adam Foss and thought leaders from the University of Michigan and other academic institutions, ending with a concert by the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit.
The underlying theme: Tackle inequities early, leveraging education and the power of leaders in healthcare, in order to address structural violence, and to help disadvantaged youth thrive.
“What pulled me out of poverty and enabled me to leave the poor neighborhood that I grew up in was education and opportunities, hands down. Education is the absolute cure. In America, the exciting thing is that if you become educated, you have a chance to not be haunted by generational poverty,” Newman said.
A mission strengthened by current events
Recent civil unrest and violence against black Americans has Newman thinking more about inequities lately. She hopes to leverage the award to make more meaningful connections outside of the hospital system and medical school, and translate those connections to meaningful progress.
That COVID-19 disproportionately affected black communities strengthens her resolve.
“We need to go in and put our heads together to usher children out of generational poverty and find creative means for upward economic mobility in urban neighborhoods. Look what happened with COVID-19. Health and equity showed its ugly head and it’s no surprise,” Newman said.
Newman learned of the award right around the time Ahmaud Arbery was killed by a group of white vigilantes in Georgia. Her thinking about racism turned clinical.
“It’s bias, and it’s asymptomatic at first. When you go out and load your truck with a gun, it becomes symptomatic violence,” Newman said.
She wondered: Could physicians screen for racism in patients that could potentially manifest in violence? Could they, because they are in a position of trust, then somehow intervene?
If doctors are already talking to their patients about domestic violence and sexual histories, could talking about racism be that much of a stretch?
“Let’s talk about race in America. It’s a problem. Perhaps you could keep someone at least asymptomatic. You assess and then what? I don’t know what. We have our best opportunity with kids.” Newman said.
On the heels of receiving the Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award, Newman took on a new role as the Associate Chief Clinical Officer for Health Equity within the University of Michigan Medical Group that just might see her leveraging those opportunities.
Newman will work with the group to ensure that clinical practice standards and delivery decisions across all service lines are executed in ways that lessen racial and economic disparities.
It’s a daunting task, and you have to start somewhere. For Newman, somewhere is here.
By Colleen Stone