Renee DeSilva: Personal Reflections on Race & Health

On a cold night in January 1997, my phone rang in the middle of the night. On the other end of the line I heard my mother’s voice, distraught and hysterical, as she tried to tell me my 34-year old brother had died at the hands of police. I was a senior in college, 300 miles away from home, and desperately trying to wrap my head around the news. I was heartbroken. 

Across the next few months, I was thrust into a role that my 20 year-old self was not ready for. I led conversations with the police, talked to witnesses on the scene, and represented my family with the media. I will never forget the heartache. As I witness the recent examples that demonstrate a lack of value placed on black and brown lives, my heart continues to break.

I am a black daughter, wife, sister, aunt, and mother. I have never had the luxury of being unaware of what it means to be black or brown in America. I’ve written letters to the police department on behalf of my nephew after frequent racial profiling and taunting. My biggest fear is that my children will not be safe. At 25, 14, and 11 and despite our affluent neighborhood, I know that they are not immune. They can tell you they’ve heard versions of this talk many times.

I also have the privilege of serving as CEO of The Academy, where I reflect on these issues in multiple ways. From the standpoint of an executive, I am often the only person of color and woman in the room. It can feel lonely and isolating at times—I am aware of the subtle and overt ways that this is plays out in corporate America.

As a healthcare leader, I think about the mountain of research across the industry highlighting the inequities in US health care system. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 exemplifies this, with “African-American deaths being nearly two times greater than would be expected based on their share of the population.”

Where do we go from here? At The Academy, we typically avoid religion or politics. But in this case, these are human issues. As the leader of an organization with a platform of thousands of health system and industry leaders, we must explore ways to create a safe space for dialogue on challenging topics. Moreover, we need to drive the national conversation on equity and inclusion. I am pushing myself to get out of my own comfort zone and lead from the front.