Anti-Bigotry and OT: A Collaboration for Change

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

University students are working together and empowering each other to advocate for change to make learning and working environments more inclusive at Washington University in St. Louis -- and ultimately around the world.

“I didn’t recognize you since you changed your hair.”

“You look so much more professional now that your hair is straight.”

“All these crazy names are hard.”

“Wow, Black and male, you check so many boxes! You’re like a unicorn.”

“Maybe you should reconsider whether the program is right for you.”

“If the workload is too much, you can always drop out.”

“Maybe you should be an occupational therapy assistant instead.”

“We want to have people of color to be admitted into our programs, but we just can’t find the talent.”

These quotes are eye-opening examples of the larger issues of racism, discrimination, and hostility towards Black people and marginalized groups in our society. The alliance between the Anti-Bigotry Coalition (ABC) and the Black Washington University Occupational Therapy Collective (BWUOTC) was born out of our shared frustration with the ongoing alienation of Black and marginalized persons during everyday exchanges and within societal systems. We demand sustainable change in equity and inclusion practices at Washington University in St. Louis. Our mission is advocating for systemic changes that will not only uplift and protect Black voices and experiences but do the same for all people who feel marginalized by the institution.

Empathy is one of the most valuable tools OT practitioners utilize when engaging with clients and it is also a critical part of developing mutually beneficial professional relationships. Unfortunately, the members of our collective organizations and communities continue to experience subtle and blatant affronts to their dignity and humanity ranging from stereotyping to microaggressions to deliberate discrimination in training and service provision. Why is there such a profound disconnect between how occupational therapy practitioners are trained to treat clients and how we treat our classmates, students, and colleagues? Why is it easy to accommodate clients’ needs, but not the needs of students and mentees? Reflection on these two questions motivated our student group to develop a platform to address the problems we saw within our community and break down the barriers to the formation of both a diverse and inclusive environment.

Many schools and organizations strive for diversity (presence) but have not yet done the work to foster an environment in which individuals at every level (student, staff, and faculty) feel welcomed, accepted, and appreciated (i.e., inclusion), nor have they examined the effectiveness of proposed solutions to determine equity of financial, academic, and professional outcomes. Inclusive learning environments are powered by empathy and thoughtful consideration of the needs and experiences of all groups when developing and implementing policies and curricula. We charge OT education programs to create environments that value the needs and histories of all students, faculty, and staff in their programs.

In an inclusive environment, students are considered to be unique individuals with different needs and priorities, and these differences are recognized and celebrated. Finally, inclusive environments include leaders and structures that prioritize equity and provide the support that individuals and persons in marginalized groups need to succeed. This means program faculty and administrators must proactively and consistently engage in reflection and review of their policies and curricula in order to develop the most supportive school environment for all students. Schools must cultivate an inclusive environment by valuing people over power, emphasizing collaboration and teamwork, training individuals in inclusive practices, and holding accountable those who deliberately detract from or hinder this collaborative and inclusive spirit.

We charge all academic institutions to utilize their financial, physical, and human resources to foster an equitable, inclusive environment in which everyone can thrive by taking the following six steps:

  1. Conducting a “needs assessment,” during which leaders and other stakeholders identify facilitators and barriers to the occupation of learning how to be an occupational therapy practitioner or other professional, especially from the perspectives of people of color and underrepresented minority groups.

  2. Make concerted efforts to strengthen the recruitment, retention, and support of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), low-income, and URM (underrepresented minorities) individuals. Examples include the creation or expansion of financial support for diversity fellowships and programs and the implementation of race-conscious hiring practices to help ensure equitable outcomes.

  3. Develop, implement, and enforce zero tolerance policies to eliminate bigotry and harassment and help ensure everyone’s right to safety and belonging in their communities.

  4. Audit curricula often and ensure that students receive education and training from diverse perspectives that discusses the impact of racism and bigotry in healthcare with the goal of providing equitable, empathetic client -centered care across all settings.

  5. Invest in the development of departmental positions with a sole focus on improving departmental culture, such as a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer or an equivalent role that meets the needs of each program’s students and community members.

  6. Collaborate with local community members and other stakeholders to learn about their needs and how to best support them as large organizations with influence and capital.

Since our inception, ABC and BWUOTC have called for action at all levels of WashU and some of these efforts are beginning to bear fruit. As we continue to foster a dialogue and create change, we are learning that the key to a fruitful collaboration with WUOT leadership is not any specific knowledge or skills, but simply their willingness to empathize and understand the experiences of their students. First, WUOT is adjusting their student grievance policy to provide more explicit instructions for students who are reporting concerns andcreating multiple methods of submitting concerns to make the process more accessible and safe. Additionally, WUOT has agreed to make diversity, equity, and inclusion (DIE) training mandatory for faculty and students. Finally, WUOT leadership has committed to addressing the issues raised in our call to action and the the program’s new leaders are passionate about these causes. We hope these small victories are the first steps on a long journey towards shifting the academic and community landscape for the better and we look forward to continuing to foster a positive relationship with WUOT leadership.

George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Sandra Bland. Michelle Cusseaux. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Amadou Diallo. Fred Hampton. Emmett Till. The sense of hopelessness many people experience in the face of an unending current of oppression of minority groups can be suffocating. Making progress is daunting when you think of yourself as an ordinary individual who cannot possibly change the world. Yet, ordinary people are required for extraordinary change. Without each person contributing in each way they can, we cannot expect extraordinary change to happen. As Leslie Knope says – and as we did with this collaboration – “find your team and get to work.”

Article content by Annie Zheng, Makeda Jackson, Mario Millsap, and Cat Camacho

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