When George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020, outrage erupted across the country. Terry Zhu, a fourth-year medical student at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, marched with friends and classmates in the Black Lives Matter protests in Los Angeles. But she knew she wanted to do more.

Zhu wrote an email to classmate Runi Tanna, a student affairs representative for the Class of 2021, Hitting “send” on that email was the first step in the formation of a student-led task force that is designing and implementing anti-racism initiatives in all aspects of the Keck School student experience.

Racial inequities and cultural insensitivities are issues that all large organizations grapple with. But as future health care providers, Zhu and Tanna wanted to play a role in shaping the Keck School’s response.

“Discrimination based on race affects our lives and our patients’ lives, and we felt like we were in a position to change that,” Tanna said.

Acknowledging that tackling institutional racism is a “vague and ambitious goal,” Zhu and Tanna began by surveying medical students in all four years about their experiences.

The responses surpassed their expectations. Not only were concerns raised, but respondents shared creative ideas of how those concerns could be addressed.

The students approached Donna Elliott, MD, EdD, vice dean for medical education, and Joyce Richey, PhD, associate dean for diversity and inclusion, to get buy-in for the task force.

“The students came to us last summer and they had their PowerPoint and they’d done their research about efforts at other schools,” Elliott said. “They were thinking they had to convince us that we had to do this work. Our response was ‘yes,’ of course.”

The task force is led by a steering committee comprising Zhu, Tanna and 10 other students, and faculty members Elliott and Richey. In addition, five working groups composed of students and faculty are developing and implementing recommendations in the following areas: wellness; admissions and pathway programs; student affairs; curriculum; and community engagement. In total, more than 60 students and faculty are contributing to this comprehensive undertaking.

Elliott praised the task force for achieving a lot in a short time.

The student affairs working group, for example, began developing a process to rapidly acknowledge and communicate to students regarding instances of racial violence occurring at USC, locally and nationally. The group also compiled recommendations for students participating in civic advocacy, in alignment with recommendations from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

The curriculum working group is developing an anti-racist guide for faculty to use when preparing course materials. The guide, which will be implemented this summer, will help the Keck School develop a systematic and sustainable method for the retrospective and prospective review of content and materials to eliminate racial insensitivities in the MD curriculum.

Other initiatives include increasing outreach to prospective students from Black and Latinx communities, more assessment on the toll discrimination takes on student wellbeing, and one-on-one peer support for students experiencing microaggressions.

Zhu and Tanna, who will both graduate and go on medical residencies next year, said assuring longevity of the project has been a key area of focus. The work of the task force has already become institutionalized as part of Keck’s commitment to social justice.

“A big part of this is to continue to assess student body and recruit new students to the task force,” Tanna said. “What started as a conversation between two people has become a lasting initiative. We are very proud to have made this happen for Keck.”

Students and faculty can learn more about this anti-racism task force at: https://ksom.usc.edu/artf/

— Sarah Nightingale