When we go looking for a dentist, what we will most likely find are White males. According to the 2014-2015 “Minnesota Dentists Workforce Survey,” 67 percent of dentists are male, 92 percent are White, and 0.7 percent are African American. A young African American woman from North Minneapolis has successfully challenged those odds.
Shakeyla Barber was born in Robbinsdale, Minnesota but lived with her grandmother in Brookhaven, Mississippi until fourth grade, when she moved to North Minneapolis.
“I’m a southern mid-westerner,” she said, having often returned to Mississippi to spend summers with her grandmother.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from the University of St. Thomas, but as she recalls the struggle, the decision did not come easy at first. “Initially, when I was completing my courses at St. Thomas, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” Barber told the MSR.
She changed her career path several times before making her decision final. “I went from international business and French to psychology. I didn’t like any of them,” said Barber. She described her decision to enter the medical field as resulting from a process of elimination.
She eventually went to medical school for an M.D. Her dental hygienist suggested she pursue a career in dentistry. Barber hesitated at first, but gave it some thought. “I didn’t really want to work in people’s mouths. That didn’t sound appealing to me,” she said. “[But] I figured I didn’t have anything to lose, so I gave it a shot, and it took off from there.”
According Barber, entering the field of dentistry was rigorous and competitive. She needed 50 to 100 shadowing (observation) hours at a dental office. She didn’t know a dentist willing to help her meet that shadowing requirement. “I had an actual phone book calling all the dental contacts. Everybody shut me down.”
While she was volunteering for a clinic in Uptown, one of the dentists finally reached out to her for shadowing to obtain her hours. “I took it as a sign,” she said.
It wasn’t until her last few years in college that Barber committed to studying dentistry. “I wasn’t one of those people when I was 11 or 12 that said when I grow up I want to be a dentist. I was probably 21 or 22 when I really settled upon it. Everybody in that field had [a relative] who was already settled in that field. It was hard because nobody in my family was a dentist.”
The application required letters of recommendation, a background check, and essays. “It was such a complex process, and I spent around $2,000 applying [to] dental schools.”
Barber worked at Walgreens to save for travel expenses to dental school interviews. Each trip required hotels, plane tickets and car rentals. “I felt like I was trying to join a sorority,” she said.
As the first person in her family to receive a bachelor’s degree and matriculate to dental school, Barber recalled that her foundation and support came from her parents. “They always put education first, especially my mother, who did everything she could for me in college.”
Barber’s unique perspective comes from the southern visits and being bred up North. “I remember going to the doctor’s office [in Mississippi] with my grandma for check-ups,” she said. “I never [saw] Black people in the building, not even custodians. From an early age, I didn’t think that was my place to obtain something like [a degree in the dental field]. It teaches you early what you shouldn’t go for.”
She also recalled the segregation in Brookhaven, which motivated her to strive for better. “There was a railroad with Blacks on one side and Whites on the other, crappy houses falling apart, and huge mansions less than a block away. They made sure you knew your place and where to go. When I came to North Minneapolis, I said I need something more.”
Barber remembered high school as fun with supportive friends. She was a cheerleader one year, attending basketball games and high school dances. She also remembers the girls who got pregnant, students who dropped out, students with gang affiliations who got locked up and even killed. “Right after graduation, somebody in our class got murdered. I said to myself, ‘I can’t get distracted; I have to remain focused.’”
She recalled being prejudged because she graduated from Henry High in North Minneapolis. Fellow workers assumed she graduated from St. Paul Henry Sibley. When she said North Minneapolis, she got the look followed by the “Oh” statement.
“I felt like I was trying to prove something,” Barber said. “Even though I came from unorthodox areas that are [deemed unsuccessful], it empowered me even more, because my mind was always in the right place.”
Barber also recalled how, when she entered the room while visiting dental offices, before she even spoke she could tell people assumed she was either an assistant or hygienist. “They look in disbelief when they find out I’m the dentist.”
Shakeyla Barber received her Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree from the University of Minnesota on May 12, 2017. She is set to start her residency program in Bronx, New York to gain more experience in a hospital setting.
She said her new title is surreal. “When I get calls asking for Dr. Barber, it takes a few seconds to realize, ‘Oh yeah, that’s me.’ Everybody legally knows that’s your title and your name.”
Barber is excited and ready for her new adventure. “I visited the location a few times already.” Everyone there from the director to the assistant director was African American. “It [was] a breath of fresh air.”
With a new journey beginning, Barber gives a few words of advice. “Believe in yourself, even if you don’t have opportunities or support. You are going to hit some walls, but keep your faith strong. Don’t associate yourself with just anybody or everybody. Surround yourself with people who have common goals [and who] will empower you to want to do better.”
Ivan B. Phifer welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.