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Greater Houston Dental Society creates diversity committee, shares lessons learned

September 25, 2017

By Kimber Solana


Diversity: From left, Drs. Akbar Ebrahimian, Gargi Mukherji, Victor Rodriguez, Michelle Aguilos Thompson and Maryam Tabrizi pose for photo during a Greater Houston Dental Society Diversity Committee event held May 25 in Houston. The Diversity Committee Fiesta event was one of the first social gatherings organized by the Diversity Committee, which Dr. Rodriguez, as GHDS president in 2016, helped create with the assistance of Dr. Thompson, a graduate of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership.
Houston — Considering that Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country, it caught Dr. Victor Rodriguez by surprise to learn that the Greater Houston Dental Society did not have its own diversity committee.
    
The local dental society has about 1,600 members, with about 35 percent of whom belong to a minority group.
    
"It was surprising to me that we didn't have [a diversity committee]," he said. "But after we looked around the country, we realized there weren't very many diversity committees at the state and local levels."
    
When Dr. Rodriguez became president in 2016, he sought to change that.
    
In September, the Greater Houston Dental Society Diversity Committee celebrated its one-year anniversary.
    
However, starting the committee wasn't always easy. It's for this reason that Dr. Michelle Aguilos Thompson, a member of the Institute for Diversity in Leadership 2016-17 class who helped organized Greater Houston Dental Society's diversity committee, is using the experience to help guide other local and state dental organizations in starting their own.
    
Setting goals

One of the first people he asked to join the committee was Dr. Thompson, who had just been accepted to the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership.
    
"I really didn't know what to do," Dr. Rodriguez said. "But I knew I needed the right people to answer the important questions: What are our goals? What is our mission?"

During the Institute's program year, class members develop leadership skills and execute a personal leadership project that addresses an issue or challenge in his or her community, organization or the profession.

"[Dr. Rodriguez] called me and asked me to make this (forming the diversity committee) my project," she said.
    
The first meeting involved five people.
    

Fiesta: Houston-area dentists and staff from the Greater Houston Dental Society pose for a photo during the May 25 Diversity Committee Fiesta, a social event organized by the GHDS Diversity Committee. About 60 dentists attended the celebration which welcomed members from the various dental groups in Houston.
"We had to lay out our plan and set our goals," Dr. Thompson said.
    
The main goal for the Greater Houston Dental Society Diversity Committee is to help increase the membership with diverse members, said Dr. Rodriguez.
    
"We had to look at our dental society and some of the statistics were not very nice," he said.
    
The dental society only had 34 percent market share of minority dentists.
    
"That means we have about 1,000 potential dentists who are minorities but only a third of them are members," he said. "That to me was just not good. That was an alarming statistic."
    
To engage more minority dentists, the committee has organized several meet-and-greets, inviting dentists to its general meetings that include continuing education speakers. On Oct. 27, the committee is also hosting a lunch and learn for minority dental students to share their professional experiences.

The group's second goal is to reach out to the minority dental groups in Houston.

While Greater Houston Dental Society didn't have a diversity committee, Houston is home to minority dental groups, including the Houston Asian American Dental Society and Houston Hispanic Dental Association.
    
"We want to bring some of the leaders from these other groups to our committee and have some representation," Dr. Rodriguez said. "We want to have a dialogue and figure out a way to work together."
    
The committee welcomed members from the various dental groups in Houston at social event in May. About 60 dentists attended the celebration.
    
The third goal of the committee is to create cultural awareness and sensitivity in the Greater Houston Dental Society. Through articles and events, the committee seeks to engage the dental society's members and share stories and discuss issues involving diversity.
    
"Minority dentists face different challenges," Dr. Rodriguez said. "We have different languages, different cultures, dialects. Some are first generation immigrants and some the first to be born in America. These are stories that are important to tell."
    
Guiding others

The committee, which is currently a subcommittee of the Greater Houston Dental Society board, hopes to become a standalone committee by the end of the year or early next year. Today, the committee has about 15 members working on the three main goals first set in that initial meeting.
    
However, challenges in outreach and recruitment remain. It's for this reason that Dr. Thompson modified her Institute for Diversity in Leadership project.
    
"In the beginning, my goal was just to form the committee," she said. "But I knew immediately that this committee was going to be formed with or without me. I wanted another challenge."

Dr. Thompson decided to meticulously document Greater Houston Dental Society's efforts and actions in organizing their diversity committee, from setting the stage for diversity and including and starting conversations on the topic to taking action and sustaining the group's work.

"I'm creating a guide so whoever is interested in creating a diversity committee can pick it up and get started," she said.
    
Understanding that local and state dental groups vary in demographics and processes, Dr. Thompson said the guide can be modified and will be constantly changing. One of Dr. Thompson's Institute classmates is already using the guide to start a diversity committee in Dallas, she said.
    
"The profession is becoming more diverse, especially the number of women," Dr. Thompson said. "If we don't have a way to attract diverse members and develop them as leaders, we're going to face the challenge of having leaders who aren't reflective of the general members."

Dental societies interested in starting a diversity committee can email Dr. Thompson at michelle.aguilos@gmail.com.