A Perspective on Dr. Martin Luther King and His Impact

By Brian Gibbs, PhD, Chief Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Officer at UMass Memorial Health

I want to offer my perspective on Dr. Martin Luther King, his impact on my life, and to share a bit about how his vision informs UMass Memorial Health’s approach to becoming a more diverse and inclusive place to work, provide more equitable care to our patients, and offer a sense of belonging and acceptance to all who come through our doors.

My decision to pursue a degree in occupational therapy and, ultimately, my doctorate in health policy and social welfare was undoubtedly influenced by my exposure to television, radio broadcasts, and reading about Dr. King; a visionary who changed the course of history, the civil rights movement and subsequent civil unrest.  Another important influence of my youth was observing my grandmother—a domestic worker—clean homes and provide care to the invalid during early Saturday mornings. Both role models helped clarify compassionate leadership and the value of service to others.

As an occupational therapist, I chose to work in underserved urban communities impacted by many factors, including long-standing poverty, deeply entrenched yet preventable chronic diseases, gun violence and substance abuse. I saw firsthand the impact on infants, children and families, and what I could not observe was revealed through their stories of strife and determination, which inspired me to think more critically about making a difference in the lives of the people and communities I felt blessed to serve. I learned of their dignity and expressed desire for better. Those stories, along with outstanding mentors and community partnerships, shaped my life purpose, pursuit of training and education, and have helped me remain steadfast in my commitment to advancing the field of diversity science, which includes understanding health inequity, unconscious bias, inclusion, belonging and social justice in health and health care.

As I contemplated joining UMass Memorial Health, I reflected on an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This proverb speaks profoundly to the power of numbers, of diversity, and the importance of leveraging our privileges and platforms to elevate others around us. Within the proverbial statement about going far is an understanding that success, or “going far,” calls for a transformative vision not unlike that of Dr. King’s. It was the big, bold and far-reaching transformative vision that drew me to UMass Memorial.  Specifically, UMass Memorial’s system-wide commitment to elevate diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB), willingness to embrace rather than shy away from social justice, and a commitment of resources to take on the complex tasks of working to eliminate the health and health care inequities that are impacting our patients and the communities we serve.

In closing, I want to recognize that February is Black History Month. This year’s national theme is Black health and wellness, and the goal is to acknowledge and celebrate the legacy of Black scholars and practitioners in medicine who helped change the course of health care and race relations in the United States. These scholars invented first-of-their-kind medical devices, developed innovative surgical procedures, paved the way for improved patient access to quality care and raised awareness about quality-of-life issues. Beyond the importance of celebrating these pioneering practitioners, this theme is also critical in making evident the health inequities facing Black people; inequities that have been severely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Black caregivers and patients in our very own community.

Like Black History Month, the DEIB Office is creating a system-wide diversity calendar to acknowledge and celebrate religious and ethnic holidays, heritage months, and cultural events. As we expand and grow as an office, we want to hear from you, your stories of inspiration, history, hope, and healing. The best way to contact us is at deib@umassmemorial.org. We are here to serve you. Please join us as we strengthen the UMass Memorial Health brand of belonging, connectivity, curiosity, equity, and improved understanding of and respect for our shared humanity. Here is a video that I think speaks volumes about why it is important for us to stand together to ensure all of us feel like we belong.