51st Annual Meeting Speaker Highlight: James E.K. Hildreth, Ph.D., M.D.

In 2020, two issues have dominated the conversation in philanthropy: the COVID-19 pandemic and the fight against racial injustice. The two issues are also highly intertwined, with the weight of the pandemic falling disproportionately on Black and Latinx communities.

One speaker at SECF’s 51st Annual Meeting may be more qualified than anyone else to discuss the inequity of the pandemic: James E.K. Hildreth, president and CEO of Nashville’s Meharry Medical College, the first medical school for African Americans in the South, and one of the world’s foremost researchers of infectious disease, particularly HIV/AIDS. 

Hildreth will speak during Race, Place & Systemic Inequities, a concurrent session taking place on the Annual Meeting’s first day. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Hildreth has been vocal online, using his Twitter account to urge continued public vigilance to fight the pandemic. Earlier this month, Hildreth wrote a letter to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee urging a statewide mask mandate.

“We need a coordinated, statewide response to combat this virus and that can only be achieved with your forceful leadership, particularly on masking,” Hildreth wrote. “Decisions made during this pandemic should be guided by science, and the science clearly dictates that masks effectively reduce transmission.”

COVID-19’s impact on communities of color is only the latest manifestation of the many ways racial inequity results in poorer health outcomes – a topic Hildreth is unafraid to discuss publicly in stark terms.

One of the main drivers of racial health inequity is the lack of diversity in the medical field. Hildreth recently told Forbes that, despite decades of accomplishments and groundbreaking research, he still faces discrimination due to the color of his skin.

“Despite my extensive training and prestigious educational experience, my credibility is often questioned. When we walk into classrooms, boardrooms, operating rooms – we are often first seen by the color of our skin and are only later recognized for our degrees and successes,” he said. “This puts these physicians in conflicting positions and limits meaningful educational experiences for our nation’s rising generation of medical professionals.”

Another driver of inequity, Hildreth says, is a distrust of the medical establishment by Blacks – a distrust driven in part by unethical and exploitative treatments.

“Many Black Americans have a long-standing history of skepticism in the American health care system due to decades of harmful experiments and misuse of medical research including the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks’ cells,” he says. “This enduring lack of trust in health care impacts preventative care, further contributing to the many health disparities seen today throughout the Black community.”

Hildreth has used his role and reputation, however, to push for changes in how Black Americans are treated by the health care system. Under his leadership, Meharry – an HBCU founded in 1876 – has hosted a free, drive-up COVID-19 testing site in Nashville’s largely Black Northside neighborhood.  

“One of the most important roles for HBCUs during this outbreak is to continue to serve as trusted messengers and opinion leaders for these communities,” Hildreth told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “That’s why I try my best to speak about the science, but in a way that shows people that there is an end to this and that we all have a part to play in stopping the spread of COVID-19.”


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