Founder of Diversity in Dentistry Mentorships discusses importance of representation | American Dental Association

Founder of Diversity in Dentistry Mentorships discusses importance of representation

Dr. Laila B. Hishaw: Look kids in their eyes 'and tell them they would be a great dentist one day'

Photo of Diversity in Dentistry participants

Future dentists: Participants of the Diversify Dentistry Youth Summit pose for a photo. The event was organized by Diversity in Dentistry Mentorship, which was founded by Dr. Laila B. Hishaw.

Photo of Dr. Hishaw
Dr. Hishaw

Increasing diversity in the profession is of utmost importance for Laila B. Hishaw, D.D.S.

It’s the reason why she founded Diversity in Dentistry Mentorships, a nonprofit educational organization that’s committed to strengthen the diversity pipeline from middle school to dental school.

The group seeks to do this through mentoring, educational and hands-on programming, and scholarships to youth and pre-dental students who are Black, Latinx and Native American.

“My mission is to mentor young people of color to go into dentistry to strike more of a balance in the profession,” said Dr. Hishaw. “To increase diversity, we must lengthen and strengthen the pathway from middle school to dental school. Waiting until college is too late.”

Dr. Hishaw recently, on Feb. 23, moderated the New York State Dental Association virtual panel discussion, “The Black Experience in Dentistry: Honoring the Past and Changing the Future.”

The New Dentist News spoke with her to learn more about what words of wisdom she gives to the next generation of Black dentists, what organized dentistry can do more to increase representation in the profession, and to learn more about her organization’s mission.

NDN: What words of wisdom or advice do you offer to fellow Black dentists and dental students?

Dr. Hishaw: Find a mentor! One of my favorite quotes from Oprah Winfrey is, “A mentor allows you to see the hope inside yourself.” I couldn’t agree more and that was my hope when I started my nonprofit, Diversity In Dentistry Mentorships, Inc. with the hope of increasing the number of Black youth and other historically underrepresented minority students that want to enter the profession. You’ll need different mentors for different stages of your career from guidance into dental school, starting your first practice, leading in organized dentistry, to building a nonprofit.  The benefits of mentorship are vast. You can learn from their vision, experiences, and knowledge, gain assistance in solving problems and changing your perspective, widen your network of influence, and hold yourself accountable.  

NDN: Which trailblazer in dentistry inspired you? 

Dr. Hishaw: Dr. Jeanne Sinkford. She is the first woman dean of any American dental school and is affectionately known as “my dean” to thousands of dentists across the country. We have never met in person but she answered my call to serve on my panel to address systemic racism in dentistry. She has been a sponsor for me in many spaces and continues to provide guidance and support in my endeavors to reach more lives through Diversity In Dentistry Mentorships.   When I think about how many obstacles she had to overcome as a Black female dentist, educator, department chair, and dean, I respect her persistence, courage, and resilience.  Her commitment to our beloved profession and the education of our future dentists inspires me to be a lifelong learner, servant leader, and mentor for years to come just like my dean, Dr. Sinkford.

NDN: Of the dental workforce, 3.8% are Black. From your perspective, how does this affect the oral health disparities that exist in racially and ethnically diverse communities?

Dr. Hishaw: Diversity in dentistry has not improved, especially for those who are Black, in the past 15 years. In 2018, only 16% of enrollees in dental schools were underrepresented minorities. U.S. dental schools acknowledge the lack of representation in their schools but have not seemed to figure out how to recruit qualified applicants and then have to compete with one another in the small pool of diverse applicants. Studies have shown a lack of diversity in medicine leads to poor cultural competency amongst health care providers. Lack of cultural competence leads to ineffective communication, bias, and ultimately results in inequity in the delivery of health care including oral health to minorities ultimately leading to poor health outcomes.

We aim to reach our youth early to learn how rewarding a career in dentistry is and that it can be an attainable goal. Working with our mentors throughout their educational journey will increase the dental school applicant pool of diverse, strong candidates.  It is our hope this will increase the acceptance rate of historically underrepresented minority students (HURM) into dental school. Increasing the diversity in dentistry will positively impact both the lives of the dentists and the communities they serve, improving the overall delivery of equitable oral health care to everyone.

NDN: What can organized dentistry and dental professionals do to help increase diversity and representation in the profession? What inspired you to create Diversity in Dentistry Mentorships?  

Dr. Hishaw: What’s most exciting about mentoring is to see the kids' faces light up when they put on that white coat and they stand a little taller and a little prouder. When they have learned more about dentistry than they did prior and when they say that they want to be a dentist one day — then I know they will never forget that feeling and a seed has been planted and perhaps it will flourish into fruition! 

I want my dental colleagues to know it is incumbent upon all of us to raise up the next generation of diverse leaders in dentistry, not just the dentists of color because there are not enough of us. You have a captive audience right there in your dental chair with your pediatric patients. Look them in their eyes and tell them they would be a great dentist one day. When you are out serving your community, such as during Give Kids A Smile, share that same vision for the kids as you are teaching them about their oral health. You may be the first adult to ever empower them to believe something greater for themselves. There’s no greater gift!

Sign up to be a #mentorforthemovement or support our mission with your donation at www.diversityindentistry.org.  We are more than just oral health providers, we are role models and we can show our mentees that  “We D.I.D. it…so can they!”