Struggle Continues to Realize Dream of Martin Luther King, UCSF Awardees Say

By Lisa Cisneros

At the Jan. 22 ceremony, UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann presented the Martin Luther King Jr. Awards to, from left, Alicia Gonzalez-Flores, Andre Campbell and Joseph Castro.

Three members of the UCSF community who were recently honored with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award agree that more work must be done to realize the dream of the human rights icon.

UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, presented the awards to Andre Campbell, MD, professor of surgery at San Francisco General Hospital; Joseph Castro, PhD, vice provost of Student Academic Affairs, and Alicia Gonzalez-Flores, a fourth-year medical student.

“This award is, without a doubt, one of the most meaningful of my career,” said Castro, who was recently named special assistant to the chancellor. “I consider our work to increase and nurture diversity among the most important and gratifying work that we do.”

The three awardees thanked their families, mentors and colleagues for their support and gave heart-felt testimony about their personal path to UCSF and why their work to promote equal opportunity and diversity must continue.

Castro credited his uncle for being his extended family’s “first educator” and a role model and his mother, Anne Marie Mendez, who was his first diversity teacher and role model.

“Through her actions, she taught me to embrace diversity at a young age,” he said. “I learned a great deal about diversity — and many other things — by hanging around the beauty salon, where she and other women worked. Along with my grandmother, she hosted meetings in our home of the local Council of Mexican American Women, which raised money for student scholarships.”

A native of Mexico, Gonzalez-Flores praised her parents, “who although never had any formal schooling, know the importance of education, and whose immense dedication and support” made her graduation from high school, UCLA, and soon UCSF, possible.

All three awardees feel fortunate to have had the opportunities to pursue a higher education.

Castro’s introduction to UC came in 1983 when a UC Berkeley outreach program offered him admission as a freshman at a community center in Fresno. “That single experience transformed my life and set me on a path that has brought me to UCSF. It also led to a lifelong commitment to pay it forward — each and every day.”

Campbell paid tribute to his predecessors who promoted equal rights and opportunity at UCSF, where he earned his medical degree.

“We all stand on the shoulders of people who have come before us as we live and work at UCSF,” he said. “The process of extending opportunities to medical students of different ethnic backgrounds here started with demands made by the Black Caucus in the 1960s to make sure that UCSF was a diverse institution.

“I have been fortunate to have been given the opportunity to be a medical student at UCSF, train at Columbia College of Physician and Surgeons and later to come back here to work at UCSF as a faculty member now 16 years ago. At UCSF, we work with some of the brightest minds in American medicine. With the initiative on diversity that was recently developed under the guidance of Drs. [Eugene] Washington, [Renee] Navarro and now Chancellor [Susan] Desmond-Hellmann, I hope that going forward, UCSF will continue to increase the level of diversity among its professional schools.”

UCSF, which adopted in February 2007 and has since implemented most elements in its 10-point diversity initiative, has made considerable progress in advancing the University’s longstanding commitment to excellence and diversity. The UCSF Strategic Plan, released in June 2007, also called upon the University to create a more diverse campus community and to ensure that “UCSF continues to attract the best and most diverse candidates for all educational programs.”

When Desmond-Hellmann became chancellor in October 2009, she pledged her commitment to UCSF’s vision of building diversity by educating, training and employing a diverse faculty, staff and student body.

Opening Doors of Opportunity

For Gonzalez-Flores, who understands the struggles of the disadvantaged, including farm workers for whom she is working to change labor guidelines to better protect them against the scorching heat through her evidence-based research, change comes slowly.

“Today, I wish I could say that segregation and discrimination are a thing of the past,” Gonzalez-Flores said. “Today, I wish I could say that Dr. King’s fight is over and no longer requires fighting. I wish I could say that students in South Central LA or in the small communities of the Central Valley have the same fighting chance at accessing higher education as every other student in America does. I wish I could say that more than one hundred years later, our college classrooms are filled with the faces of students from communities of color and that our professional schools are representative of our communities.

Alicia Gonzalez-Flores and UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann.

“But, the reality is that, today our communities, our students continue to struggle in a broken system. Our students continue to suffer from unacceptably high drop-out rates, they continue to be confined to the prison system, and continue to be convinced that the military is the only way out of their communities.

“Every time a child, a young man or woman dies on the streets due to gang violence, every time a child drops out of school or enters the justice system, and every time a child is denied of proper education because of legal status, we get further and further away from achieving Dr. King’s dream. We must demand that our communities are equipped with schools that prepare our students for higher education. We must demand that every student has access to a college education regardless of their citizenship status. We must continue the work that Dr. King started and that opened the doors and paved the road for so many of us.”

Campbell sees firsthand the toll that violence has taken in the African American community, where disparities in health and socioeconomic status exist. As a trauma surgeon, Campbell treats homicide victims — most of whom are African American males — at SFGH, the city’s only safety-net hospital for the underserved. He is recognized for raising his voice about the epidemic of violence, which peaked in 2007 when SFGH regularly treated 10 to 15 victims of shootings on weekend nights.

Campbell acknowledged that the number of homicides is down in San Francisco this year, but violence disproportionately affects the Bayview Hunters Point, Western Addition, Portrero Hill and the Mission District.

And while African Americans and other minorities continue to face challenges in this new decade, Campbell pointed out one reason to be optimistic — the election of Barack Obama as the first black president. He recounted his elation while attending the inauguration with his wife and son, along with an estimated 2 million others who descended on the nation’s capitol for what he describes as the march on Washington for his generation.

“As I watched the event like many of you did at the time, I could not decide if I should cry or scream so I did both,” Campbell said. “As the electoral landscape continues to change, we have to manage our expectations of President Obama. We have to remember, he walked into multiple difficult problems when he took over as commander-in-chief and he was tested from day one on all fronts.

“I think we have to continue to support him, but we have to make sure he addresses issues that matter to the poor and unfortunate as well as the titans of Wall Street.”

Focusing closer to home, Castro summed up the year ahead like this: “Let us demonstrate together the courage, creativity and commitment to take our campus diversity and inclusion efforts to the next level.”

Photos by Susan Merrell

Related Links:

UCSF to Celebrate MLK Week with Series of Events
UCSF Today, January 14, 2010

Voices, video profile of Alicia Gonzalez-Flores, Diversity website