Brittany Wright named first-ever coordinator of diversity, equity and inclusion in the College of Optometry

Brittany Wright

Assistant Clinical Professor Brittany Wright was named the first-ever coordinator of diversity, equity and inclusion for the College of Optometry last month (Photo by August Jennewein).

It was a patient encounter Brittany Wright had at the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis that drove home how few people of color there were in the optometric profession.

One of three Black students in her class, the now-assistant clinical professor of optometry remembers meeting the patient during student clinicals.

“Having a 70-year-old patient tell me that I’m the first Black doctor that they’ve seen in their lifetime was eye-opening,” she said. “It was that kind of situation and interaction that helped me develop an awareness and know that if I’m experiencing this now, there have to be others feeling similarly.”

Her experiences are in no way an island. According to the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry, slightly more than 3 percent of full-time enrolled students were Black during the 2019-20 academic year. There’s been virtually no growth in that area since 2007-08 when Black students made up a flat 3 percent of optometry students.

Few students of color means few doctors of color.

But Wright is now in a position to do something about it. Last month, Dean Larry Davis named her the first-ever coordinator of diversity, equity and inclusion for the College of Optometry at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. In her new role, Wright will aid recruitment of a diverse body of students, residents, faculty and staff, help develop cultural competence education that will be fit throughout college’s curriculum and assume other responsibilities as the role develops.

Davis started thinking about the need for the new position earlier this year. Traditionally a male-dominated profession, schools have just started graduating more female students than male. There was the UMSL college’s long history of service toward diverse patient populations, but Davis believed it was time to go beyond that.

“Recent events in 2020, conversations within the optometric education community and broader profession have all illuminated the need to be more intentional about our DEI and cultural competency activities,” he said. “I recognized that a point person to maintain awareness for all of those various activities would facilitate synergy among all involved and maximize the impact realized from that tremendous work. Brittany has energy, the respect of the faculty and was already leading conversations.”

Davis and Wright anticipate working with Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tanisha Stevens and Senior Manager of Strategic Diversity Initiatives Marlo Hode. Wright’s position is not the only one of its type at UMSL. For example, Associate Teaching Professor Vanessa Lloyd is the faculty fellow for diversity, equity and inclusion in the College of Nursing.

Though the responsibilities of the position are still evolving, Wright anticipates working with a committee of faculty and staff members such as Assistant Clinical Professor Angel Novel Simmons, Business Administration Officer Theresa Murphy, Clinical Professor Julie DeKinder and others. Wright expects to focus on targeted recruitment, cultural competency and confronting implicit bias.

Different departments within the college have already been working on DEI efforts, and Wright’s idea is to bring those together.

“The idea is to create symbiosis among what we’re already doing and redirect some efforts to make sure they have a better impact or the right type of impact,” she said. “This is an opportunity to shift the cycle. We’ve got to speak up, and we’ve got to continue to make change. Everyone benefits from a more diverse and inclusive community: students, faculty, patients – all of our experiences, beliefs, cultures and voices make for better, more productive and thoughtful interactions.”

She hopes to see the impact of those efforts in the makeup of the student body.

“And that this is a place where students, staff and faculty continue to feel included and comfortable being who they are wholly, without needing to put themselves in any particular box or category, to fit in,” she said. “The goal is definitely just different faces, different ideas, different cultures represented, highlighted and supported.”

A native of Chicago, Wright first discovered the profession while shadowing while an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She quickly fell in love with the pace of an optometric practice, which allows doctors to spend quality time with patients and build bonds.

After earning her OD at the Southern College of Optometry, she did a residency at the Kansas City VA Medical Center in ocular disease and low-vision rehabilitation. Following residency, she developed a special interest in community and public health.

That residency is affiliated with UMSL’s program, and Wright noticed the close community. When she and her husband moved to the greater St. Louis area, she got in touch with DeKinder and Simmons and started keeping her eye open for job postings.

When a position opened up, Wright pounced and eventually started working full time in Aug.  2019.

“I really enjoy it and being in clinic,” she said. “It’s nice that it’s a smaller college, so everybody knows everybody. There’s a great team effort to make sure you’re successful, which is really good.”


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