Making room at the table

Black veterinarians are creating spaces to increase their visibility in the profession.

Underneath the turquoise Carolina sky, a little Black boy sits and waits for a croaking frog to hop by as he gathers his net. His sand-filled bucket is nearly full of frogs he has skillfully collected throughout the day. He has given names to each of his amphibian friends, and as the sunlight slowly gives way to moonlight, he bids them each a good night before releasing them. His evening is interrupted by his mother’s voice summoning him inside to wash his hands and prepare for dinner.

His wish is to one day be a veterinarian and care for all creatures, big and small. However, he is just as likely to see Santa Claus climbing down his chimney as he is to see a Black veterinarian. This fact skews his reality and redirects his future. Without the visibility, network, and mentors of color to confide in, his aspirations wither. His family, shielding him from the unknown, and society, nudging him toward something more common, map out his future into something less extraordinary.

Elsewhere, a little Black girl with cherry-red hair ties runs outside in her dad’s off-white special-occasions dinner jacket. She enjoys sneaking to put it on almost as much as she enjoys sneaking it back. The jacket makes her feel like a superhero—a veterinarian. It swallows her body and collects debris as she plays. She meets with the local dogs and cats and is occasionally joined by the neighbor’s rabbit, having escaped from its owner’s confines. Although the girl loves to congregate with her furry friends, this is considered unladylike and an empty pastime. The centripetal force of society gradually pulls her toward a typecast future more “suitable” for a woman of color.

The face of veterinary practice starts to change

Behind the momentum of the Higher Education Act of 1972, veterinary medicine began to shift from a male-dominated to a female-dominated profession. This trend reached its apex in 2009, when female veterinarians outnumbered male veterinarians.1 The shifting gender landscape caused consternation in the industry, where sentiments such as this were widely expressed: “Although the movement of women into veterinary medicine has had a very positive influence on the profession, a reasonable balance of men and women is believed to be desirable both for the profession and for society in general.”2

Veterinary medicine’s grudging acceptance of gender parity came from the belief that women in the profession would eventually leave to tend to family issues, causing a void. Today, an estimated 63% of veterinarians are women, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).3

Unmasking the reality of the profession’s makeup

In 1972, the first minority recruitment seminar/workshop in the history of veterinary medicine was held at Purdue University. At that time, Indiana’s African American population was 12%, whereas only 1.14% of their veterinarians were Black.1 The journey to racial parity in veterinary medicine has been circuitous. One conclusion from the 1972 meeting at Purdue was, “The veterinary profession has simply not voiced a concern about multicultural representation, and the issue has been overlooked in all previous meetings of veterinary and academic associations.”1

In 1980, data reporting on the racial composition of applicants and admissions across veterinary schools and colleges became widely accepted, making it easier to observe trends.1This pooling of data was the impetus for targeted outreach programs aimed at increasing minority representation. In 2010, the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) announced a goal to “by 2014, increase the number of underrepresented minority students by 35% and increase the number of underrepresented minority faculty members by 20%.”

The AVMA adopted a similar strategic plan in 2008 and 2010, which included a workforce objective to “foster increased veterinary workforce diversity pertaining to professional areas of service and to cultural, ethnic, gender, and racial representations.”4 They went on to state that, “by 2020, the AVMA should create a strong and diverse sense of community within the veterinary profession.”5 Despite this, in 2021, veterinary medicine scored the lowest of all health care professions on Simpson’s Diversity Index, which measures the number of racial and ethnic groups represented and their distribution across a profession.6

A 2019 AAVMC admissions report found selection bias in the admission cycle, concluding that “certain groups are directly or indirectly disadvantaged, to some degree, with the current admissions process and systems.” These included Black and Brown students, women, Pell Grant recipients, first-generation college students, and people from rural communities who sought to practice rurally.

Why visibility matters to aspiring black vets

Likewise, lack of visibility remains a hurdle for aspiring Black veterinarians whose anemic numbers combined with their maldistribution foster feelings of isolation and unworthiness. Being unable to find mentors or others in your desired field who look like you creates doubt about whether the goal itself is achievable. To counteract this, Tierra Price, DVM, a 2020 graduate of Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, created the BlackDVM Network in 2018. The network has blossomed into a major force across social media and is a place where people from all walks can see Black veterinarians doing what they love. It allows some to connect for the first time and others to reconnect. Stereotypes have a disproportionate impact because of the lack of balanced societal images of Black Americans, but Price and the BlackDVM Network aim to change that.

Social and professional networks are vital for organizations and individuals alike. As conduits for information, they create a social context for collaboration and provide opportunities for intentional and spontaneous sharing of power.7 Networks are also invaluable for social and emotional support. Coming from a small town in North Carolina, second-year veterinary student Marquis Harper, MSc, knows this well.

“I didn’t see any Black veterinarians, especially [men, growing up],” he says. Harper, the first Black class president at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, started the Facebook group Black Men in Veterinary Medicine the summer before attending veterinary school. Now 2 years in, the group has over 100 veterinarians, technicians, and aspiring vet students. It allows members to share information and experiences and links prospective students with teachers. When creating the group, Harper said he envisioned “a safe place to share advice, wisdom, mentorship, and other resources within this community.”

Harper wishes to return to his hometown, open a low-cost veterinary clinic, and continue building networks where the underserved can be seen and heard.

In addition to lacking visibility and networks, low upward mobility within the profession remains a deterrent for Black individuals seeking to enter. The lack of Black individuals in leadership sends a signal that although joining the workforce is OK, leading other veterinarians and making important decisions is not. This makes for a less inclusive environment and hampers retention and recruitment efforts. Working every day in an organization with no real path to leadership is demoralizing and demotivating.

Danielle LaMarr, DVM, a 1997 graduate of Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine, started her career working at the Atlanta Humane Society to give back to the community. She soon recognized a huge need for high-quality veterinary care delivered directly to pet owners who, for whatever reason, could not bring their pets to a clinic. Now LaMarr owns a mobile veterinary service, Pet-Fixer, a full-service hospital on wheels that frequents local schools, where she teaches about veterinary medicine and serves as a mentor for the underserved. LaMarr has become a staple in suburban Atlanta and has touched the next generation of veterinarians.

Seeing fantastic veterinarians of color is important for not only the community but also people in the veterinary industry. To that end, you can see Tasha Axam, DVM, DACVR, on any given day at any number of hospitals in the greater Atlanta area. Axam, who is a 2004 graduate of Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine, started Axam Imaging, Inc, a Georgia-based teleradiology and mobile ultrasound service.

“African American veterinarians walk in the door having to prove our credentials and our competency, having to insist that we, too, have earned the right to be here,” Axam said in a recent interview with Georgia Veterinarian Magazine.9

Each time Axam enters a new hospital, her excellence is on display. The inconvenient truth is that Black veterinarians do not get the benefit of individuality. Any individual shortcomings act as a referendum on an entire group.

Hope for a new look in veterinary practice going forward

Martin Luther King Jr once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Although sustainable and meaningful change has eluded veterinary medicine thus far, with people like Marquis Harper and Drs Price, Axam, and LaMarr, the future looks bright, inclusive, and diverse.

So, when a little Black girl or boy sits and ponders their dreams underneath the deep blue sky, they won’t be forced to acquiesce to the pressure of society. They will see people who look like them, doing the things they dream of, and have people to champion their goals and celebrate their victories. They will go steadfast into a profession that sees them as meaningful contributors, not as outliers.

Dr. Charles McMillan is a 2012 graduate of the Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine and member of the dvm360® editorial advisory board. A small animal practitioner in suburban Atlanta, he enjoys writing about breed and culture in veterinary medicine and the techniques for establishing a healthy workplace ecosystem. You can reach him at doctorthinker.com or on Instagram at @yourfavoritepetdoc.

References

  1. Greenhill LM, Davis KC, Lowrie PM, Amass SF. Navigating Diversity and Inclusion in Veterinary Medicine. Purdue University Press; 2013.
  2. O’Neil EH, Shugars DA, Bader, JD. Health Professions Education for the Future: Schools in Service to the Nation. Pew Health Professions Commission, UCSF Center for Health Professions; 1993.
  3. Nolen RS. Women practice owners projected to over-take men within a decade. JAVMA News. January 11, 2021. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2020-12-15/women-practice-owners-projected-overtake-men-within-decade
  4. American Veterinary Medical Association Strategic Plan. American Veterinary Medical Association. Accessed January 4, 2022. https://jvme.utpjournals.press/doi/epdf/10.3138/jvme.36.2.154
  5. Burns K. 20/20 foresight: commission offers a vision to advance the AVMA. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2011;238(11):1372-1374. https://avmajournals.avma.org/view/journals/javma/238/11/javma.238.11.1368.xml#d2674494e300
  6. Nolen RS. Fierce competition over veterinary labor. JAVMA News. November 17, 2021. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2021-12-01/fierce-competition-over-veterinary-labor
  7. Dowell GW. Navigating Power Relationships. Cornell University, LSM597. 2021.
  8. Lloyd JW, Greenhill LM. American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges. AAVMC admissions: report of the 2019 student survey analysis. American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges. November 6, 2020. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://www.aavmc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/2019-Admissions-Analysis-Monograph.pdf
  9. Corley L. Dr. Tasha Axam – profiles in diversity. Georgia Veterinary Medical Association. November 14, 2021. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://gvma.net/2021/11/14/dr-tasha-axam-profiles-in-diversity/

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