The 13% Promise: Increasing racial diversity in optometry

September 29, 2020

The profession of optometry as of 2015 is 79.7 percent white or Caucasian

Essence Johnson, OD, FAAO, grew up in Moreno Valley, CA, and upon graduating high school she was recruited to attend the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) Prairie View A&M University in Texas. When she got the call from the dean offering her a full scholarship to attend despite the fact she hadn’t even applied, she knew from the conversation that this was an opportunity she could not miss. That decision led to her future journey to optometry as a profession.

“It’s been an amazing adventure,” she says.

Her unconventional path included attending Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University, then completing a residency in ocular disease at Omni Eye in Atlanta. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry and a Diplomate of the American Board of Optometry. She now practices in Dallas as a community and correctional health optometrist at a local hospital.

Looking inward

The year 2020 has been a year of reflection for Dr. Johnson, asking herself, “What kind of optometrist do I want to be?” More than just the type of services she is providing to patients, she is concerned about how to help raise awareness of the profession of optometry especially in communities that have been under represented.

“I’m celebrating all of the Black people who are becoming the first,” she says, reflecting on how frequently African Americans are just now becoming the first person of color to achieve milestones or accomplishments even in 2020. “I’m excited to be the change that I want to see and for other people to see us as the Black professionals that we are and be inspired to do anything.”

She encourages doctors to embrace social media to bring optometry to their communities on a personal level and inspire a new generation of young leaders to pursue the profession.

“Branding is very important, and that has helped with our visibility [as African American healthcare providers],” she says.

She uses her Instagram account @houseof_optometrista as a way to share the profession that she loves with her larger community and as a vision board to inspire her professionally and personally.

Black Eyecare Perspective

One of the missions she posts frequently about is with Black Eyecare Perspective, which was created to foster relationships between African Americans and the eyecare industry, where she serves as chief visionary officer and is in charge of branding and outreach.

Black Eyecare Perspective was founded to raise awareness about the inequality of representation of African Americans in optometry schools and in the profession of optometry as a whole. Currently 40 percent of the U.S. population is comprised of minorities (including African Americans, Hispanic or Latinx, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Asian), but the profession of optometry as of 2015 is 79.7 percent white or Caucasian.1

A 2016 report by Association for Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO)1 outlining demographics of optometry students revealed that only 2.7 percent of optometric students identified as Black or African American, a number that has been flat over the last decade even as other minorities have been seeing increasing in representation on optometry school campuses. Compare that to the fact that 13.4 percent of the US population identifies as African American,2 and the under representation is stark.

The 13% Promise

Black Eyecare Perspective has worked closely with optometry schools to institute meaningful change to address these numbers. The 13% Promise is a pledge for optometry schools, industry partners, and eyecare businesses to achieve 13 percent representation of African Americans in school enrollment, speaker bureaus, executive level positions, and college faculty by 2025.3

The New England College of Optometry (NECO) has committed to this initiative with public endorsement by the NECO President Howard Purcell, OD, FAAO.4

“Currently only 3.1 percent of NECO students and 4 percent of faculty identify as African American or Black, so the college will need a clear strategy to achieve this goal,” says Traci Logan, NECO executive vice president in a statement. “Increasing representation isn’t something we should just talk about as an aspiration, it has to become something we commit ourselves to doing because it benefits our students, employees, patients, and the eyecare industry as a whole.”4

Impact HBCU

Impact HBCU is another branch of Black Eyecare Perspective’s initiative that is a personal point of emphasis for Dr. Johnson, an HBCU graduate.5 The goal is to create a pipeline for recruitment of HBCU students into optometry schools.

On Tuesday, October 6, Black Eyecare Perspective will hold a virtual meeting across HBCUs to share optometry as a profession and discuss diversity in eye care. Admissions advocates for optometry schools will be present to help educate students about what is needed to apply and resources will be provided for students to create a resume, headshot, and a bio as groundwork for engaging in professional opportunities.

Finding opportunity

“Sometimes you may feel that certain opportunities are passing you by,” Dr. Johnson says as advice for young students just starting their journeys in optometry, “but the reality is that they aren’t. You are the key to unlock your own door, and nobody else can take that opportunity away from you.”

References

1. Chu GY, Kalaczinski L, Russo D, Leasher J, Elder K, Fink B. Diversity in our Colleges and Schools of Optometry. Optometric Education. Available at: https://journal.opted.org/article/diversity-in-our-colleges-and-schools-of-optometry/. Accessed 9/28/20.

2. U.S. Census. Quick Facts. Available at: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/RHI125219#RHI125218. Accessed 9/28/20.

3. Black Eyecare Perspective. The 13% Promise. Available at: https://blackeyecareperspective.com/the-13-promise. Accessed 9/28/20.

4. NECO Magazine. NECO joins the 13% Promise initiative by Black Eyecare Perspective. Available at: https://www.neco.edu/news/entry/13-promise-initiative. Accessed 9/28/20.

5. Black Eyecare Perspective. Impact HBCU. Available at: https://blackeyecareperspective.com/impact-hbcu. Accessed 9/28/20.