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June 9, 2021

Pharmacy Mentor Helps Black Student Pharmacists and Practitioners Reach Their Potential

Joshua Blackwell, Pharm.D., M.S., volunteers his time to help those in his community.

THE ROAD TOWARD GREATER DIVERSITY, inclusion, and equity is long, but Joshua Blackwell, Pharm.D., M.S., clinical pharmacy manager for ambulatory services at UT Southwestern Medical Center, is committed to seeing it through as best as he can.

Helping the Underrepresented

Dr. Blackwell has spent the better part of the last decade helping underserved pharmacists move up in their careers. In 2013, during his pharmacy studies, he took on leadership positions at the Student National Pharmacy Association (SNPhA), an organization dedicated to serving the underserved. Dr. Blackwell started off as his chapter’s president but quickly rose to oversee all SNPhA chapters in the Midwest and ultimately became National President.

“I had the honor of helping the organization home in on their mission by creating innovative programs and opportunities to serve and strengthen communities,” said Dr. Blackwell, an ASHP member since 2011.

One initiative he worked on was the Prescription for Service competition, a collaboration with Walmart and Sam’s Club, which provides scholarships to pharmacy students based on projects they develop to help the underserved in their community.

“I’ll never forget the winners of the very first competition, in 2013,” Dr. Blackwell said. That project was done by pharmacy students at Howard University and led to a partnership between the University and the Capitol City Pharmacy Medical Reserves Corps, in which the school manages outreach efforts to local student organizations, including wellness fairs and scholarship opportunities. Another winning project Dr. Blackwell is particularly proud of was developed by pharmacy students at Texas A&M University and included a cleanup of a community park and a mural painted on a nearby basketball court to help promote equity and inclusion.

Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy

Joshua Blackwell, Pharm.D., M.S.

After strengthening his leadership chops at SNPhA, Dr. Blackwell co-founded the Pharmacy Initiative Leaders (PILs), a nonprofit organization aimed at empowering underrepresented individuals and “helping them, through authentic support and connection, succeed at every stage of their pharmacy journey,” he said.

“A key to the organization’s success has been creating a culture of community and going out and really cultivating and amplifying people’s strengths, particularly those who may not have an advanced education or the greatest financial resources,” said Dr. Blackwell.

Recently, he and his colleagues at PILs addressed vaccine hesitancy in Black communities through a webinar open to the public.

“When I got the COVID-19 vaccine myself, I had reactions from family ranging from, ‘I’m so happy for you, how’re you feeling?’ to, ‘Are they trying to kill you with the vaccine?’” Dr. Blackwell said, pointing to the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study as an event that spawned suspicion in Black communities regarding the motives of healthcare institutions and public health campaigns.

While historical suspicions are understandable, “People who hold on to fears based on news and social media find it hard to see the positive impact COVID-19 vaccination can have on the community,” Dr. Blackwell said.

To mitigate the impact of these fears, he and his co-presenters explained how COVID-19 vaccines work, answered questions about these medications and about the disease, and highlighted that vaccination is important for all, including Black communities.

Navigating Widespread Biases

Dr. Blackwell’s passion for helping Black pharmacy students and practitioners reach their potential was sparked when, as a student, he faced his own race-based barriers.

“As a black male at a predominantly white institution, people assumed I played football just because a lot of African American males at the university did,” said Dr. Blackwell. In other instances, he faced microaggressions, such as being told that he was “surprisingly articulate.”

Rather than taking these slights to heart, Dr. Blackwell transformed their energy into a stronger resolve to serve his community and reach greater heights. “I’ve always tried to be an example so that other people that look like me try and have a seat at the table, along with the many other underrepresented groups out there,” he said.

Divya Varkey, Pharm.D., M.S., clinical associate professor at University of Houston College of Pharmacy, has been one of Blackwell’s most admired mentors. She said Dr. Blackwell “epitomizes the idea of ‘paying it forward,’ and his passion is easy to see when it comes to providing guidance, support, and mentorship to those around him.”

“His goal for those around him is simply stated: to ensure they are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to be the best version of themselves,” Dr. Varkey said. “To that end, as a mentor himself, Dr. Blackwell spends countless hours working with mentees to help them cultivate their own definition of success and then – and most importantly – connects them to opportunities to achieve those goals.”

ASHP and Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Dr. Blackwell recently served on ASHP’s Task Force on Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), where he helped develop recommendations on marketing and advocacy. The recommendations range from calling on ASHP to provide scholarships to Black, Indigenous, and persons of color (BIPOC) to asking the organization to spotlight the accomplishments of BIPOC students.

“To make all pharmacists feel that ASHP is their home, they need to see themselves playing a role within the organization, and marketing and awareness of ASHP opportunities is one way to get more people at the table,” Dr. Blackwell said, adding that by virtue of taking on leadership roles – including currently serving as a member of ASHP’s House of Delegates  –  he believes he has helped further the cause of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“Having a seat at the table is so important because it inspires others who look like me to go further, ultimately giving them more of a voice and expanding the conversation to include other viewpoints,” said Dr. Blackwell.

He is hopeful the DEI Task Force recommendations will help chip away at society-wide racial inequality and urged ASHP members to review and reflect on the recommendations as well as the actions ASHP takes to address health disparities.

“And be a voice within your state affiliates for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts,” Dr. Blackwell urged. “While work at the national level is critical, it all starts at the state level.”

 

By David Wild

January 12, 2021

Pharm.D. Candidate is a Long-Time Champion for Diversity

Jeffrey Clark is a fourth-year Pharm.D. Candidate at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine School of Pharmacy.

AFTER GRADUATING FROM a Bachelor of Science program, Jeffrey Clark was torn between applying to pharmacy school or medical school. As fate would have it, that hesitation dissipated when Clark entered the post-undergraduate working world.

While working as a program and wellness manager at the University System of Georgia, Clark was surprised to find out that pharmacists worked in managed care positions. “I’d always thought of pharmacists as being limited to the retail setting,” Clark said.

Discovering the range of options available to pharmacists and feeling gratification from helping individuals achieve better health through the wellness programs inspired Clark to pursue a career in pharmacy.

Diversity Leadership

As a fourth-year Pharm.D. Candidate at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine School of Pharmacy in Suwanee, Georgia, Clark’s professional interests include pharmacy operations management, medication safety, and quality assurance. His plan at the moment, however, is to pursue a two-year residency in health-system pharmacy administration and leadership.

That choice of specialization is a natural one for Clark, who serves in several leadership roles, including Chair of the ASHP Pharmacy Student Forum Executive Committee and as a student representative to the ASHP House of Delegates.

Clark is perhaps most passionate about being a leader in diversity. This interest was sparked in high school, where he spearheaded the formation of diversity groups, and a task force. “I remember explaining to [my high school’s] administration that we didn’t have a diversity-focused organization and that we needed to hold a conversation around the topic,” he said. After speaking up and voicing his concerns, Clark was asked to start a campus diversity organization.

Clark was called on again to lead diversity initiatives at college, where the campus president asked him to facilitate a task force on the issue, with the goal of finding ways to recruit individuals from underserved communities to college positions. “Those discussions ultimately led us to build awareness among faculty and staff and promote discussions on matters related to race,” he recalled.

Clark’s rich history of diversity leadership has led him to his current position as a member of the ASHP’s Task Force on Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). His mentor, Joshua Blackwell, Pharm.D., clinical pharmacy manager, ambulatory services, at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, is excited to see what Clark will help achieve during his tenure on the ASHP DEI Task Force.

“When the call to action came from ASHP, Jeffrey immediately contacted me and expressed interest in serving as the student voice on the DEI Task Force,” said Dr. Blackwell. “I think one of Jeffrey’s greatest strengths is that he understands and listens to what other students around the country say their challenges and opportunities are within pharmacy schools. He wants to help them at every stage of their journey.”

Diverse Mentors, Leaders, and Students

Clark has reached impressive heights as a leader, but the path as a black male has come with some challenges. “I initially struggled to find a leader in pharmacy that I really connected with and felt comfortable telling my life story to, and I partly attribute that to not having someone who looks like me,” Clark said.

Although he eventually found leaders who supported and guided him, that lack of an early connection may have translated to some missed opportunities, he believes. “There are lots of opportunities available to pharmacy students, but you have to know about them and figure out where to put your time and effort,” Clark said. “If you don’t have a mentor to guide you, that can be difficult.”

Clark hopes to dedicate part of his time on the ASHP DEI Task Force to ensuring that other potential and current pharmacy students do not similarly miss out on opportunities. Promoting awareness to communities and schools that have historically been less of a focus for pharmacy schools is one way he believes this can be done. Sharing the stories and achievements of diverse members of the pharmacy community should also make students feel more comfortable and interested in getting involved with pharmacy organizations, Clark believes.

“People of color sometimes don’t feel like they stand a chance, and they don’t see how they’re going to find a mentor or some kind of connection to break through racial barriers,” he said. “We need to be proactive in seeking out people from diverse backgrounds and to communicate better with them to let them know, ‘Hey, you can do this!’”

Practitioner Diversity Improves Patient Care

Clark is a member of the ASHP Task Force on Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Clark believes that having practitioners that represent the mirror the diverse range of patient backgrounds – whether it is race, sex, or socioeconomic level – can help improve the quality of care that individuals receive.

For example, he recalls finding some patients from minority backgrounds reluctant to share information with the hospital rounding team during some of his patient rounds. While the sheer size of a large medical team may have intimidated them, “in some cases where the patient we treated was black, I noticed that when I went into the room alone, they would be much more open to talking,” Clark recalled. “There are some people that feel more comfortable talking to a person who is like them.”

For all the reasons that diversity is so important to him, Clark is excited about the changes he and his peers stand to make through ASHP’s DEI Task Force. “Diversity is already happening,” he said. “We’re working hand-in-hand with ASHP staff to make sure we find every opportunity to grow, and to develop policies and accountability systems that keep us expanding our diversity, not just once, but on an ongoing basis.”

By David Wild

 

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