Ads for smoking cigarettes targeting Blacks. Denying loans for Blacks to buy houses. Building segregated neighborhoods. Running highways around and through minority neighborhoods with all the accompanying pollution. This has been some of the reality of America that Dr. Jenny Tsai pointed out during an all-school address at Loomis Chaffee on Monday, January 16.
As Dr. Tsai spoke about health inequality at the Martin Luther King Day convocation, a screen behind her showed these and other stats: Black and Hispanic populations have higher exposure to 13 out of 14 main pollutants; they are twice as likely to live less than two miles from toxic waste sites. And she talked about applying critical race theory to medical care.
Dr. Tsai is not content with simply being an emergency medicine resident at Yale School of Medicine. She wants to change things. That started when she was at Brown University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies and human biology before getting her medical degree there. Dr. Tsai also earned a master’s degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“At Brown I had amazing teachers and friends who were so much smarter than me and understood the world in a way I did not,” Dr. Tsai said after the convocation. “I felt like my history classes and ethics studies classes taught me so much more about why the world is the way it is than my immunology classes and my neurology classes.”
“It’s hard to work in a hospital and see that kind of suffering and not care,” she continued. “It just doesn’t make sense and it is wrong. I think there is a reason why most emergency medicine doctors lean left and care a little more about equity because you see what it does, and you see it’s unneeded suffering. And it’s violent, and it’s traumatic, and it’s entirely preventable.”
In response to a question from a student, Dr. Tsai said there are many ways to help change health inequities, and she recommended that people use the fields of study, professions, and skills that interest them to work toward change.
“What I hope you walk away with is that this is an all-hands-on-deck kind of situation,” she told the student body. “There are so many ways to fight inequality, and so many ways we need to fight inequality, so I hope you get a little upset and angry about the world the way it is. And what I hope you look for is the thing that both feeds you and energizes you ... so that could mean policy, that could mean green spaces, that could mean writing, that could mean being a doctor, that could mean being a lawyer. That could be a hundred thousand things, so whatever feeds you and fights inequality.”
Dr. Tsai discussed many challenges to the country’s healthcare system, including the role of corporate greed, prompted by another question from a student.
“My Twitter bio says ‘crapitalism,’” she said with a laugh, “so I'd say I attribute a lot to corporate and personal greed. I think during COVID one of the most depressing things for me was I saw greed winning, and it just hits you over the head over and over again. And it’s not goodness, it’s not kindness, it’s not justice that wins … it’s corporate greed and money.”
Why do some people have billions of dollars, and some cannot even afford insulin, Dr. Tsai wondered.
“And how did you make that money and who did you have to step on ... who constantly gets stepped on?” she asked.
Dr. Tsai is willing to step on the status quo. Even if it means, as she said afterwards, that she gets angry emails, mean comments, and Twitter trolls. She pushes ahead. A lot of what causes health inequality was made by humans, she pointed out, which gives her confidence and optimism that the problems can be changed by humans, albeit slowly.
The convocation was part of a weeklong celebration of the life and teaching of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who advocated for equality in all facets of life and was assassinated in 1968. That was 55 years ago, and still there are people like Dr. Tsai who isn’t content to work a full day in a high-stress job and let that be enough. Instead, she works and advocates for change. How does she do it?
“I’m a really sleepy person,” she said with a laugh. “It’s tough, but I think what is important, as I said earlier, is finding work that energizes you. That is part of it. It does not mean it’s always going to be glory and fun, but I do think advocacy work is energizing and is part of why I do what I do, and without it I’d be worse off. In a way it fills my bucket and brings me back to why am I doing any of this in the first place?”
After the convocation, students met in small groups with their advisors to discuss some of the issues and questions Dr. Tsai raised. After an intense morning, the school community reconvened in the afternoon for performances by Loomis students inspired by Dr. King’s legacy. There was song. There was dance. There was music and spoken word. There was hope, optimism, and energy, fueled by the passion of young people.
There was the feeling that the next difference-maker was in that audience or on that stage.