New associate dean of diversity and campus inclusion joins College of Osteopathic Medicine

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By: Julia Malacoff

Dr. Marita Gilbert’s passion for diversity, equity and inclusion work in education began as a very young person. As a teenager, she traveled to Selma, Alabama to a demonstration protesting an educational system called tracking, where young students were placed in different career “tracks.” Most poor, Black, and brown students in the area were tracked into trades instead of college preparatory education based on their identity, regardless of academic capability.

During the demonstration, Gilbert walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge with her friends.

“I remember that moment, because it connected me to the legacy of advocacy, and the idea that you have the right and responsibility to be engaged in what’s happening in your life and in the lives of others around you,” she said.

Now, she feels strongly that higher education is the right place to have the crucial conversations our current moment in history necessitates.

“Higher ed really is where we are supposed to take on the big questions,” Gilbert said. “We’re supposed to be willing to hear different perspectives in this institution, if none other.”

She also acknowledges that doing this work can be viewed as a difficult process.

“What I also know is that at the end of that really difficult work, all of us in the community are better for it. We are all better for having someone challenge us, push us, invite us to see things in a new way, to look at a problem or a challenge from multiple lenses as opposed to just our own.”

According to Gilbert, some folks already have this as a talent and that it’s “just in them” to be able to appreciate other folks and like to do that.

“Others have to be taught. It’s a skill that can be learned. And learning is the business, it is the purpose, it is the lifeblood of higher education,” she said.

This work is particularly important in the field of medicine where marginalized communities, especially Black communities, the poor and those with less formal education, have both historic and current experience with health practitioners’ and medical scientists’ inability to extend care that honors their humanity and extends empathy.

J. Marion Sims’ gynecologic surgeries on slave women, the Tuskegee Study, and countless other less-publicized instances come to mind for Gilbert as examples of events that have contributed to a legacy of intergenerational trauma as a result of misdealings or abuse from medical practitioners.

“For me, the story of Henrietta Lacks was life-changing in terms of the way I approach my work,” Gilbert said. “Lacks was saying, ‘This is what I’m experiencing, and this is what I know to be going on with my body.’ And instead of trusting her, seeing her as credible or knowledgeable, she was dismissed until her condition was too far gone.”

Gilbert also added that if the story had stopped there, it would have been bad enough. But it didn’t. Ultimately, it was her cells that were valuable to science—not Henrietta as a human being—and they were used without her consent for years and years and years. They were sent all over the world and even into space.

A lot of times, medical professionals may think diversity, inclusion and fighting racism isn’t in their wheelhouse. But it is—or it should be, she said.

“The implications are evident not only historically, but as we now grapple with the disparate effects of a global pandemic in real time,” Gilbert said. “When we start to think about the ways all of these systems fit together—in higher ed we use the terms interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, which is also the framework of osteopathic medicine—then we can be our best for our communities.”

“There’s work to be done to repair underrepresented communities' relationships with medical science and with those of us that practice,” Gilbert added. 

Through focus groups and surveys, the College of Osteopathic Medicine has already taken several steps to improve culture within the college, starting with incorporating feedback into strategic planning efforts and beginning to operationalize it in everyday workings. Gilbert’s appointment is another step forward, and she hopes to energize the process through collaborative leadership.

“What I know for sure is that diversity, equity and inclusion work works best when it’s not all handed off to one person or laid at the feet of one singular office,” Gilbert said. “Each of us has some work, some role, some piece, and that’s where I’ll start.” 

A native of New Orleans, Gilbert earned a BA in mass communications from Auburn University and a PhD in kinesiology with concentrations in the sociology of sport and college teaching and learning, as well as a specialization in Black feminism from Michigan State University. She begins her new position on July 1.