Medical Campus town halls focus on Ferguson, diversity, inclusion

Terrence Freeman, PhD, (far right) a speaker at the School of Medicine’s town hall meetings, discusses topics touched on in one of the sessions, with (from left) Will Ross, MD, associate dean for diversity; Denise DeCou, a diversity and inclusion leader at the school; and Larry J. Shapiro, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. (Credit: E. Holland Durando)

Years ago, trustees at Washington University decided that “in St. Louis” would become part of the institution’s name. Part of the rationale was that the university embraced St. Louis as its home and saw itself as an integral member of the community.

That remains the case, Larry J. Shapiro stressed to School of Medicine faculty, staff and students in town hall meetings last week. “This university is in and of the community,” said Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “We are part of the community, and anything that happens to our community happens to us.”

In response to the tragic events last month in Ferguson, he and other administrators arranged for five town hall meetings on the Medical Campus — three last week, two this week. The sessions were organized to determine how best to help the north St. Louis County suburb and the greater St. Louis community move forward. But they also were designed to build upon ongoing discussions about diversity and inclusion on the Medical Campus.

This week’s town hall meetings will be 8 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 3, and 8 a.m. Friday, Sept. 5, in Cori Auditorium. Because space is limited, registration is requested for the one-hour meetings. Follow this link to register. Requests will be honored in the order received until capacity is reached.

In opening the sessions last week, Shapiro invited participants to share their perspectives regarding how to make the community and the university more cohesive. He encouraged constructive conversation and assured attendees that it would be safe and appropriate to acknowledge whatever points of view and concerns they had.

The goal of the town hall meetings, he said, wasn’t necessarily to come to conclusions; rather, to allow people to comfortably voice opinions and ideas.

Terrence Freeman, PhD, a professor at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley and a frequent speaker on diversity-related issues, spoke at two of the meetings and will be at the sessions this week.

Freeman encouraged attendees to listen to and respect others, and to take risks and leave their comfort zones in talking about tough subjects like race. Too many linger in the “shallow end of a pool” when it comes to discussing difficult topics, he said. Swimming into “the deep end” and being honest will build understanding and lead to change, he stressed.

“We say we like honesty — until someone is honest,” Freeman said. “When we build community, all of the community has to be included.”

Moderating the discussions and answering questions about School of Medicine diversity-related initiatives were Daniel Blash, PhD, and Denise DeCou, leaders from the school’s diversity and inclusion team. Blash and DeCou will be at this week’s sessions, as well.

Numerous attendees voiced their experiences and ideas at the town hall meetings. Many suggested ways to help Ferguson residents, while others offered thoughts on how to make the Medical Campus more inclusive.

Some told of personal experiences involving biases they’d encountered, and others offered names of organizations that might be of help in tackling those biases.

Among the audience members were some employees who live in Ferguson. They talked about the distress they felt during the unrest and what might help their town move forward.

Blash was pleased with the range and tone of comments shared by participants.

“There was a very respectful attitude in the meetings, which allowed people to talk across differences and to hear and be heard by others,” he said. “I think this opens the door to more understanding and more dialogue as we work toward making our community and our school more inclusive.”