SUNY Optometry's First Annual BLAACK Week Program Promotes Cultural Competency

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New York—As part of the mission to advance diversity and inclusion at SUNY College of Optometry, the College's President's Task Force on Race and Equity (TFRE) rolled out the first of many programs to promote active participation, understanding, and dialogue among campus members on cultural difference. The TFRE was initiated by College president David A. Heath, OD, EdM, to address racial and social disparities in optometric education and the profession. Launched in November (18-21), BLAACK (Because Learning Achieves Appreciation and Community Knowledge) Week is an initiative designed to bring awareness and appreciation of various cultures, particularly Black culture.

Through creativity and conversation, the goal is to showcase SUNY Optometry community members' joy and talent while igniting important discussions about race and health care.

"This event and more to come have been made possible by the collaborative effort of the TFRE comprised of students, faculty, and staff," said Guilherme Albieri, PhD, vice president for student affairs and chief diversity officer at SUNY Optometry. "I commend Dr. Heath for his leadership in making the College a more diverse and inclusive community." VMAIL reported on the formation of the SUNY Optometry Diversity Task Force in July .


Sophia Johnson

"I chose to get involved with BLAACK Week because I know that it can make an impact on the community at SUNY Optometry," said student Sophia Johnson, National Optometric Student Association (NOSA) president and class of 2023. "It was important that I take part in being the change I wanted to see here at my school.”

Hosted virtually, BLAACK Week included a talent show featuring live dance and music performances by SUNY Optometry students and staff and a movie night offering a compilation of films from various genres. The week-long event also incorporated the annual Taste of NOSA, a festive feast and cultural event reimagined this year as a cooking class of shared recipes representing various ethnicities throughout campus.

"The programming was intentional to showcase different aspects of Black culture," explained Johnson. "Each event attempted to simply display Black excellence through education, prose, fun and food."

Headlining the festivities was a book club meeting featuring a talk and group discussion of “Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor's Reflections on Race and Medicine” with author Dr. Damon Tweedy, associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine and staff physician at the Durham Veteran Affairs Health System. He shared his journey through the challenges, achievements, and realizations as a Black doctor in America and how race played a recurrent role in his training.

"The entire community enjoyed reading this book and listening to Tweedy's insight and perspective. He was so honest and relatable, it was a phenomenal talk," said Dr. Diane Calderon-Villaneuva, chief of primary care.

"The Q and A session allowed community members to ask questions, which sparked meaningful conversation around the book topics," added assistant clinical professor Dr. Delaram Shirazian, who was instrumental in organizing the talk and BLAACK Week activities along with fellow TFRE sub-committee member and clinical assistant professor Dr. Shelby Leach. "The hope is that BLAACK Week will become an annual event with a new book selection to continue celebrating various cultures and keep the community engaged in important discussions," said Leach.

Looking ahead, Johnson said to expect programming on campus that continues what BLAACK week started during Black History Month in February, which will celebrate SUNY Optometry Black community members and notable Black optometrists, opticians, and vision scientists that have made significant contributions to the profession. This will be the 3rd consecutive year NOSA has done such a recognition during Black History Month. She added, "Our colleagues at SUNY Optometry can also expect BLAACK Week 2021 to be back stronger and better."

Founded in 1971 and located in New York City, the State University of New York College of Optometry is a leader in education, research, and patient care, offering the Doctor of Optometry degree as well as MS and PhD degrees in vision science. The College conducts a robust program of basic, translational, and clinical research and has 65 affiliated clinical training sites as well as an on-site clinic, the University Eye Center.