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Leaving a legacy: Haywood Brown advocates for inclusivity and diversity within the medical field 

Encouraged by his mentors to overcome challenges and pursue a medical degree, Haywood Brown eventually became a mentor himself to help students from diverse backgrounds achieve their professional goals. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Growing up in a rural eastern North Carolina town, Vice President of Institutional Equity in the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity Haywood Brown experienced desegregation of the school system firsthand following the civil rights movement. He was among one of the few Black students at his school as part of the integration process in the 1970s. 

“In eighth grade, [I had been part of an] integrated school system,” Brown said. “So I was one of just a handful of students who went to the predominantly white school as part of the integration process, which was an amazing experience in itself, considering the challenges even in a small town.”

His past experiences living through racial integration consequently sparked his interest in issues around inclusivity, diversity and equity within his own community. His background, as well as life events, shaped Brown’s career path within the medical field.

During his senior year of high school, Brown suffered the sudden loss of his father due to colon cancer. The experience was a pivotal moment in his life, changing the course of his career from a veterinary journey to one in medicine.

“I actually went [to school] undifferentiated pre-med [and] pre-vet. And having grown up on a farm, our curriculums were integrated,” he said. “[I] really started out mostly in animal science, because I still assumed that I was going to go to veterinary school. [I switched] to pre-med about my sophomore year and really never looked back.”

His choice of college was inspired by his siblings, who all attended a historically Black university. He recalls it as a “family thing.” He received his bachelor’s degree in 1974 from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Brown then decided to attend the Bowman Gray School of Medicine at Wake Forest University (WFU), in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. At the time he applied, the school was actively recruiting underrepresented students, he said, which influenced his decision to attend.

“When I went to Wake Forest, and I would say that, at the time I went to medical school, and I say this a lot of times about affirmative action, people talk about the negatives of affirmative action, but my mother used to say you got to have the right ingredients to be even considered in an affirmative action format,” he said. 

“So I still wouldn’t have been considered a candidate for Wake Forest or any other school unless I had the credentials to back it up.”

One of the challenges he faced throughout his years at Wake Forest was managing “expectation bias,” also known as other people’s perceptions on his behavior and potential, and overcoming that barrier by breaking the stigmas others projected onto him about what he could achieve.

“When I went to school, even as it is now, there’s still a lot of expectation bias,” Brown said. 

“And the things that you experience is … you’re not going to encounter everybody who recognizes what you bring to the table. And I may be speaking to the choir, because you all … already know this. The example of ‘It’s OK, he can only do it, he’s probably not going to be able to do so much anyway.’”

The turning point, however, was when he met one of his mentors, who he said was a key person in helping him pursue his medical degree and overcome some of the challenges at Wake Forest

“I was fortunate enough to have such an unbelievable mentor who convinced me to go into OB-GYN,” he said. “What I try to do throughout my career, because people have helped me so much, is to really make sure that I do the same thing, and one of my philosophies has always been to lead by example. I never really ask people to do anything that I am not willing to do myself.”

Kevin Sneed, founding dean of the USF College of Pharmacy, praised Brown for being a determined colleague who always has a listening ear and desire to help students find their path in life.

“His willingness to mentor other people and to help other people, that’s the No. 1 quality that he has,” Sneed said. 

“He’s extremely unselfish when it comes to that kind of thing … The only downfall he has is that he can’t say no … People come to him, and he gets it done for everybody. There’s never a time where he does not get something done for people. Sometimes it appears that he’s taking on a whole lot.”

Without having met his mentors, Brown said he wouldn’t have become the professional nor the person he is. The help he received from them throughout his life inspired him to give the same support back to others pursuing a career in the same field.

“Your mentors don’t necessarily have to look like you, they just want to be vested in your success,” he said.

Joseph Ayala, a student at USF’s School of Aging Studies and one of Brown’s mentees, said Brown has an inspiring dedication to helping those from underrepresented backgrounds.

“From the first time I introduced myself to Dr. Brown, he has been very engaging and welcoming,” Ayala said. “He has shown commitment to my development as a student for the last year and a half by putting me in touch with important resources within USF and the community.

“Dr. Brown has done real work to cement himself as an important community partner and continues to do good work in the local Black population. People like him are necessary to bridge the gap between academia and community work.”

The inspiration behind giving back to the community and working hard also came from Brown’s dad, who taught him to always be an “overachiever” in order to succeed in life.

“One of the things my dad told me when he was going off to college was he said, ‘You grew up on a farm, [and the] reality [is that] you’re going to always meet people a lot smarter than you, but never let them hustle you.’” 

Part of being an overachiever, however, was having to deal with the expectation bias. When working, Brown said he would always do “120% to get credit for 99%.” He has since recognized the overachiever mentality aided him in his success.

“That overachiever mentality, it’s about my success, it’s not about anybody else’s. I get criticized sometimes by saying, ‘The only way Black people can achieve is to overachieve.’ And it may not be. But I’ve recognized the fact that discrimination is real, bias is real and you have to believe in yourself. If you don’t put yourself in a position where you can make decisions, then decisions will be made for you.”

He knew from an early age that if he wanted to make an impact, he needed to be in “the room where it happens.” When he pursued his residency at the University of Tennessee (UT), he was the only Black resident across all programs. That was a driving factor for Brown to start getting involved in leadership roles and creating the space for more inclusivity.

At UT, Brown got the opportunity to become the house staff president during his fourth year as chief resident. As house staff president, Brown oversaw the working conditions and reimbursements for the residents at the UT residency program. Brown used his position as a tool to support diversity in the hospital by encouraging Black students to enroll in the program as well.

“By the time I was in my fourth year [of residency] I had been recruiting other Black students to come over to do residencies in other [specialties] like family medicine,” he said.

His time as house staff president gave him the opportunity to represent the students and residents at hospital board meetings and push for equal conditions for everyone within the residency program. 

“I never forgot who I was representing in that boardroom … I would say that those experiences really shaped what my path is and how I like being in the boardroom. This is the stuff that is happening, people are making decisions about you,” Brown said. 

One of Brown’s key achievements at this time was advocating for higher salaries for the hospital’s residents, where each resident received a $900 bonus in their salaries for every year they had been working at the hospital. 

This experience inspired Brown to continue on his path as a voice and helping hand to others. He saw this moment as the starting line in his long run in being a leader.

“My commitment to diversity really is about that beginning because you have to recognize the benefits of diversity in your programs,” he said.

Over 30 years of experience as an academic prepared him for just that as he transitioned from being chair of the Department Obstetrics and Gynecology at Duke University from 2016 to 2018 to associate dean of diversity at the Morsani College of Medicine in 2018.

In his most recent role as vice president of institutional equity at the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity, Brown wants there to be substance to the ongoing plans and discussion regarding the university’s work in diversity and inclusion, and wants it reflected past statistics and numbers on a spreadsheet.

“We’re trying to talk the talk,” he said. “One of the things I’ve said to [USF President Steven Currall] is, I live in a world of science, and it’s really about ‘What is your deliverable?’ At the end of the year, at the end of two years, what have we delivered?

“We are launching all these [initiatives]. Now, we want to get some deliverables … and I’m not just talking about deliverables in numbers. I’m talking about how people feel. Do they feel safe? Do they feel that they can come here and achieve what they want to achieve? That is success.”

Being the vice president of institutional equity at USF, Brown comes in close proximity to Currall, where he advocates for a more inclusive and diverse university. Working with the Black Leadership Network, Brown said he wants to use his position to try to bring in more scholarships for Black students to increase the university’s retention. 

“What we can be better at is getting more money [for students of color], but what we can also be better at is to make sure that talented students of color don’t leave Tampa and go to Yale … we want to make sure that the students that we have accepted have accepted us,” he said. 

When he is not working, Brown enjoys using his free time educating pre-health students about financial and racial inequality in the medical field. He often serves as a role model for the pre-med students, inspiring them to become advocates within the health care industry in years to come.

“I actually became an unofficial adviser to the pre-med group,” he said. “I use this opportunity to go to the pre-professional health group … where we talk about health advocacy and why drugs cost so much money … so those are my fun days. Inspiring people to be part of the health care solution and the access to care.”

Nurturing others in their journeys in life has been in Brown’s nature since he had his first leadership role at UT. His mantra for students is to dream big and not leave any stone unturned. 

“Don’t get distracted by the noise. Dream big dreams,” he said. “College is also an opportunity to kind of find out who you are, and enjoy it a little bit, but keep your eye on the prize.”

Gabriel Brown, one of Brown’s sons, is an actor in California. He attributes his determination and commitment to acting to his father, who he looks up to as a role model, and his success in medicine.

“Dad always instilled in me the notion of perseverance and not giving up no matter how many times you hear ‘no,’” Gabriel said. “That quality has helped me as I pursue my own career as an actor on Broadway and in Hollywood. 

“Dad’s never-ending commitment to the work he loves and to helping his community pushes me every day to live up to the incredible example he set for me from such a young age. I am happy to have someone as gifted, kindhearted and noble as not only a role model but as a great father.”

Part of reaching the end zone is also about what others can do and how they can impact their community in the process, according to Brown. His commitment to always lend a hand to others continues to be a part of his core values.

“Never step on anybody else to try to get to where I am,” he said. “I pulled a lot of people up with me, but I’m not leaving bodies in the way because I have to be the person at the top. Y’all know people like that. And you have to navigate yourself around those individuals. That’s really my message to you all. When I say wipe out the noise, that’s what the noise is.”

Additional reporting by Leda Alvim and Jorgelina Manna-Rea.