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MyView: Have you seen an invisible man?

February 16, 2015

By Walter Lamacki, D.D.S.

photo of Dr. Lamacki
Dr. Lamacki
"Diversity is not the same thing as inclusion."

A line delivered by Chicago Dental Society President Susan Becker Doroshow in her installation speech in November 2014 challenged all of us to reassess our complacency on the subject.

Diversity of leadership of organized dentistry can be quantified to a certain extent. Four members who were minorities became presidents of CDS. Robert Kimbrough, an African-American and a past president of CDS, was selected by the CDS board to serve as an interim executive director in the late 1980s.

Treasurer Cheryl Watson-Lowry will become the third woman to serve as CDS president; Dr. Doroshow is the second woman to rise to CDS president, albeit 24 years after Juliann Bluitt first earned this honor. Four members of the board of directors are women. Two CDS Board members are naturalized U.S. citizens.

In 2003, the ADA, recognizing that a disconnect existed between its volunteer leaders and the changing demographics of its membership, created the Institute for Diversity in Leadership in conjunction with Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. The program accepts approximately 12 minority dentists a year who are coached in the strategies they will need to attain leadership rolls in organized dentistry.

The makeup of the ADA's leadership has changed in the last decade; four minority presidents were elected, two of whom are women. The current president of the ADA is Dr. Maxine Feinberg, the president-elect is Dr. Carol Summerhays, and the executive director is Dr. Kathleen O'Loughlin — ameliorating somewhat that leadership in organized dentistry is an old white boy's club.

But have we come to grips with Dr. Doroshow's challenge to be become inclusive?

As an undergraduate, many of us were assigned the reading of Ralph Ellison's 1952 landmark novel, "Invisible Man," wherein he depicts the plight of an African-American man searching to become assimilated in the country of his birth. His prologue elegantly synopsizes his protagonist's pathos: "I am an invisible man. When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination — indeed everything and anything, except me."

I think many of us were and are guilty of seeing through people different from us. It doesn't take much to be inclusive; a smile, a firm handshake and a genuine interest in what a person has to say covers it.

At the many branch and ethnic societies meetings I attend, new members and students are asked to introduce themselves, tell us their practice mode and where they are from. At one meeting, the social hour was particularly warm and inviting.

During one of the self-introductions, a young dental student, in a thick foreign accent told us her particulars and then said, "As you can tell from my accent, I'm from Chicago." She, of course, got a big laugh. On my way home that night, I thought of her poise among a strange and a potentially intimidating group of dentists. I think she was heartened by the inclusion she felt.

"Diversity enriches us all" has been repeated so often that it is a cliché; it's meaningless if inclusion is not part and parcel of the experience of personal relations.

Inclusion validates our efforts to be diverse.

This editorial, reprinted with permission, originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of CDS Review. Dr. Lamacki is the editor of the publication.