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March is Women's History Month, and to mark the occasion, Amna Nawaz introduces us to a pair of modern-day history makers: the Blackstock sisters. They're physicians who have dedicated themselves to working at the intersection of medicine, health equity and systemic racism. It’s part of our ongoing series, “Race Matters.”
March is Women's History Month.
And to mark the occasion, Amna Nawaz introduces us to a pair of modern-day history makers, the Blackstock sisters. They are physicians who have dedicated themselves to working at the intersection of medicine, health equity and systemic racism.
This story is part of our ongoing series, Race Matters.
So this is the neighborhood you grew up in?
Dr. Oni Blackstock, Founder, Health Justice:
Yes. This is the neighborhood.
Dr. Uche Blackstock, Founder, Advancing Health Equity:
It's the only house we ever lived in.
For Uche and Oni Blackstock, this is where it all began.
Dr. Uche Blackstock:
We have so many memories from here, our family. Good memories.
Dr. Oni Blackstock:
Their family home in Brooklyn, New York.
So it's this one right here, right?
There it is.
Your folks bought this place right before you were born?
I think, for both of our parents, it was very important that we grew up in a house. And I would say it was a house of love.
That love from father, Earl, and mother, Dale, came with high expectations and a sense of Judy to those in need.
Uche became an emergency room physician, Oni a primary care physician specializing in HIV. Both doctors lived and saw firsthand the deep racial inequities in America's health care system, and both went on to found their own health equity firms to close those gaps, gaps laid bare over the last two years, as the pandemic tore through the Black and brown communities the sisters served.
I'm scared. I am. I'm scared that these communities are going to be absolutely ravaged and devastated by COVID-19.
We need to do a much better job, starting from kindergarten, from grade school, getting young Black children, and other children of color really interested in medicine, and also providing them with the resources and support they need to get through, because it's such a long — it's a long journey, right?
Everything Oni is saying is essentially linked to systemic racism.
I mean, I think that's the reason why we haven't seen an increase in the number of Black physicians, and why we continue to see such high Black maternal mortality rates and Black infant mortality rates, and Black men have the shortest life expectancy.
We really have to have a more holistic approach to how we're addressing racial health inequities. We need not just us doing the work. We need everyone on board to doing the work. We need the resources and the time. And we know that — also that it's a marathon, and not a sprint, right?
It's a marathon you guys are running together.
Their roots, both in the neighborhood and in this work, run deep, a childhood spent poring over books with their mother at the Brooklyn Central Library, and running by her side through Prospect Park.
I ran my first race here when I was 6 years old, with my mother, who she started running I think during medical school or residency.
A Harvard-trained physician, Dr. Dale Gloria Blackstock paved the way for her daughters.
She's a little Black girl who grew up in Brooklyn on public assistance by a single mom. And she was raised along with her five siblings. And I think the world probably didn't expect a lot from her.
But she knew that she could accomplish a great deal, and nothing — nothing stopped her.
She pushed her girls to push themselves, violin lessons by age 3, trailing her to clinics and meetings, the three of them joined at the hip.
The way that our mom raised us was that we would always be together. And so we grew up together. We played together. We went to school together, took violin lessons together, you know, learned how to ride a bike together. We were inseparable for most of our lives.
And it's almost like our mom sort of knew that she wouldn't be here for a long time. And so she left us with one another.
Dale Blackstock was diagnosed with leukemia at 46. She died less than a year later. The girls were just 19, sophomores at Harvard.
We found a letter that she wrote to us under her mattress. And in the letter, she says, take care of your dad, take care of each other, take care of your aunt and your uncle, and go on to medical school.
That was one thing. She was like, you are going to medical school.
So, it was our dream, but I think it was also her dream.
Uche and Oni graduated from Harvard Medical School, just like their mom, and returned home to Brooklyn, just like their mom.
She would say: Look at my babies. I am so proud of them.
And that's all, I think, ultimately we want to do. We want to make her proud. And so I hope we are making her proud.
Yes, she'd be incredibly proud of us, incredibly proud.
As a Black woman graduating medical school in 1976, and then stepping into this professional field, there were probably a lot of barriers she had to kick down to get where she got from. And, as you both followed in her footsteps, do you think all those barriers were gone for you coming up after her?
I'm going to say that many more barriers should have fallen since our mom graduated from medical school. Only about 6 percent of physicians are Black; 3 percent are Black women.
So, we still are quite rare, and we think about, why it is that the case is, right, when we know that we are very able and competent to do this work? And so it's a tremendous amount of work needs to be done. I think, if our mother were still here, I think she would very much agree, and still be still be working on all of the same efforts that we are.
Now mothers themselves, Uche and Oni carry Dale's lessons, and her sense of mission, with them every day.
We only had her for 19 years, but she was warm, she was affectionate, and she was loving. And she made us believe that we could do anything.
When she died, I almost felt like I was floating and I didn't have any roots…
… because the person who had loved me, nourished me, supported me for all those years is no longer here. And it almost felt like that love had been lost.
But now I realize it's very much — very much still there. And when people meet us, they're meeting her. They're meeting all of the hard work that she put into us.
For the "PBS NewsHour" in Brooklyn, New York, I'm Amna Nawaz.
Watch the Full Episode
Amna Nawaz serves as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour.
Lorna Baldwin is an Emmy and Peabody award winning producer at the PBS NewsHour. In her two decades at the NewsHour, Baldwin has crisscrossed the US reporting on issues ranging from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan to tsunami preparedness in the Pacific Northwest to the politics of poverty on the campaign trail in North Carolina. Farther afield, Baldwin reported on the problem of sea turtle nest poaching in Costa Rica, the distinctive architecture of Rotterdam, the Netherlands and world renowned landscape artist, Piet Oudolf.
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