Tuesday, January 4, 2022

In her years as a college administrator, public school teacher, and adjunct professor at Long Island University in New York, Krista Walker was often the only educator of color. She served as a mentor to students of color trying to navigate an education system not created for them.

“I always seemed to connect with students of color. They seek you out when they are at predominantly white institutions,” says Walker.” They needed to see people they identified with so I did what I could to try and support them and navigate the way the system is.”

Her desire to support students of color brought her to the Schools, Culture, and Society doctoral program in the Department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies in the University of Iowa College of Education.

Beautiful Black woman smiles in suit coat
Krista Walker

However, everything changed when Walker became one of the many Black women who had to advocate for their safety during childbirth.

“I experienced invalidation, microaggressions, and more while giving birth to my son,” says Walker. “All of the things you’ve heard in the news about Black maternal morbidity and people not acknowledging Black women’s pain, it was all of that, times a thousand.”

This traumatic experience as a Black woman seeking medical care inspired Walker to change the direction of her dissertation and career, leading her to support students of color in medical education.

Walker currently works as the director for diversity and inclusion at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, a position she started in February 2021. She graduated with her doctorate in Schools, Culture, and Society in August 2021. Her research centers on the implications of race within the history of medical education between 1910-1950.

In 1910, the Flexner Report evaluated every medical school in the United States and Canada. At the time, there were between ten and 12 medical schools that accepted Black people. Following the report, only two remained open.

“We were also in Jim Crow era so we had this enormous Black population, and we needed more medical doctors to treat Black patients. Black people were also being experimented on and there’s the perception that Black people are not equal to white people and can endure more pain,” says Walker. “Black people knew they needed to have physicians for themselves because they knew they couldn’t trust white physicians to care for them in the way that was equal to how they care for their own kind.”

Multiple studies have shown that the perception Black people can endure more pain remains to this day, with medical professionals and students prescribing pain medication on an unequal basis, and even some students believing that Black people have thicker skin than white people.

Walker says that a lot of medical schools do not acknowledge the existence of systemic racism and its implications, particularly when it comes to admissions, raising expectations for their non-white applicants.

“A lot of Black students are disadvantaged. Even in kindergarten, they aren’t starting at the starting line, they are starting from 50 meters back. And then they are going through school and facing food insecurity, housing issues, issues with teachers and school districts, and lack of resources,” says Walker. “All these different things are impacting a student’s ability to engage and learn. You have to be a stellar student and then go through standardized tests that weren’t created for you. There are so many things that are working against people of color. You can’t name just one. There’s so much you have to fight and so much mental gymnastics that you have to endure throughout the entire process.”

Walker says that in order for change to be made, the white community needs to become an ally.

“White people need to care. A lot of history has happened on the backs of Black people; women’s suffrage, civil rights movement, and the LGBTQ movement,” says Walker. “We need allies that are in high places that are willing to put their bodies on the line, that are willing to say no, and are willing to lose their jobs. We’ve been dying, we’ve been losing our jobs, we’ve been getting beaten, but we need other people to stand in with us.”

Additionally, Walker says representation is crucial when it comes to recruiting more medical providers of color, and she is excited to help create space for these providers in her role.

“What’s really important to me, especially for my son who is going to grow up and be a Black man, he needs to see people like him. He has a mom who, when she walks into a room, people have to address her as ‘doctor’ and that’s a major thing. Those things make a difference,” says Walker. “Black children need to see that we exist in these spaces, and we are excellent. We are talented and opening the doors for them, and standing in the gaps for them. We are the hidden provocateurs that are creating space for them even in spaces where people think we are just fulfilling the status quo. We are opening secret doorways for them to allow them to come through. We are creating space for them in spaces that were shut off.”

Read more from the Annual Report 2021.