A 2019 study conducted in collaboration with University of Minnesota researchers found Black newborns are more likely to survive when Black doctors care for them after birth. In Minnesota, there is only one Black neonatologist in the entire state, says Dr. Nneka Sederstrom, chief health equity officer at Hennepin Healthcare.
“If we only have one Black physician to take care of the sickest of the sick as babies, how many Black babies have suffered and died as a result of that?” said Sederstrom in an interview with the MSR. “That’s a statistic we have to change.”
One way Sederstrom is tackling health inequity is by training youth from historically marginalized communities for careers in health care. In her role at Hennepin Healthcare, she created the Talent Garden, a suite of initiatives “to inspire and support historically excluded youth.”
The first project has been organizing youth summits for students ages 12-18. The first of these summits, “Black Men with Stethoscopes,” Sederstrom called a huge success with about 80 young Black men attending last December.
It’s called the Talent Garden “because it’s an image of what it takes to build an award-winning garden,” explained Sederstrom. “Like everything that you need to do to build an award-winning garden, we have to do to our youth in order to create the talent that we need to run our hospital.”
She continued, “We’ve complained about not having enough talent of color to hire at the hospital—we’re always looking outside. We have conversations about recruiting from HBCUs or from big cities that have more people of color. Why don’t we just grow our own [talent]? Why do we always have to look elsewhere?
“We sit in a community with a whole bunch of people of color who use us as their main source of care. Why don’t we just teach them how to care for their own?” said Sederstrom.
On April 30, Hennepin Healthcare held a second summit titled “Black Women with Stethoscopes.” Both that event and a second planned for May 15 have been oversold.
At the six-hour event at Hennepin Healthcare’s downtown campus, 80 students went through hands-on activities and engagement opportunities with Black physicians, dentists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.
There are three learning areas. In one, students practiced delivering babies with a birth simulator and surgery with a robot control system. At the “Ear, Nose, Throat” area, students filled cavities on 3-D printed teeth. In another, they learned basic assessment tools.
“You don’t get that in a high school science class,” said James Peters, health equity program development manager at Hennepin Healthcare. “Our design intent is to get young people so excited about having a future, if not in medicine, in science, technology, engineering and math.”
Attendees receive lab coats personalized with their names. Peters said it’s a tradition in medicine to receive a lab coat at different stages of learning and professional accreditation, and the program’s hope is this lab coat is only the first of many that attendees will receive.
Betty Tekle, a high school senior who moved to the U.S. from Eritrea three years ago, attended the April 30 summit already interested in dentistry. She said one of the biggest benefits to the summit was hearing from its panel of Black providers, who shared frankly about their struggles and how they overcame barriers.
“It was special for us, as Black women, to know what we can do and to feel accepted in pursuing a health career,” said Tekle. “And to know there are a lot of women who did that and we can do it, too.”
The summit took place with the help of 50 volunteers from across the county hospital’s system. Dr. Elizabeth Alabi, clinical director of the ambulatory clinic and the only Black OB-GYN at Hennepin Healthcare, said she jumped at the opportunity to contribute.
“I love these opportunities to be, like, ‘No, not only can you do this, you should do this. We need you,’” said Alabi. “We’re going to get old. We need someone to take care of us too.”
Alabi added, “I think if we’re really going to impact change, these are actually the steps that are part of it. A lot of times we spin our wheels wondering how we can make a difference, but it’s things like this. Because by virtue of bringing diverse backgrounds and representation into the system, it will impact change.”
To further support student development, Hennepin Healthcare is following up programming with a paid summer internship shadowing physicians for students age 16 and up.
“We’re a county hospital; we don’t have a lot of money. We’re not a big private player in the game,” said Sederstrom. “[But] you don’t need millions of dollars thrown at the problem to address racism.” Their programming has been supported by sponsorships from 3M, Delta Dental, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Starkey Hearing Labs.
“You just need people to make good decisions and do the right thing for the people in front of them. And teaching these kids, opening up our doors and letting them come do the things that we do every day, doesn’t require a lot to make happen,” continued Sederstrom.
The plan is to have similar events for Asian, Latino, American Indian, and LGBTQ youth “because we don’t want anybody to feel like they’re left out in this space,” said Sederstrom. “If you’re marginalized, then we’re trying to make sure you see yourself in being a physician, being a nurse practitioner, being a hospital administrator, chief financial officer, or an architect.
“There’s all kinds of jobs that make this building run, and we want to cultivate the talent for all of it.”
For more info, visit www.hennepinhealthcare.org/talentgarden.
Feven Gerezgiher is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.