Joan Reede has devoted much of her professional life to a simply stated but endlessly challenging objective: convincing young people they can be like her -- a minority physician with an Ivy League education.
"I was raised that if you work hard and you're willing to put out the effort, you can succeed at just about anything," she says. "And that's what I tell kids today."
Reede, 52, tells her life's story to students as part of her duties at Harvard Medical School. As the first black woman ever named as a dean at the world-renowned institution, Reede is a national role model who has bridged the yawning cultural and societal gap in America's healthcare system. Now, she is using her highly visible platform to help guide the careers of others like her, helping to pave the way for a new generation of minority medical students, doctors, faculty members and hospital administrators.
"What I think I've tried to do is help open the door to others," says Reede, a pediatrician who is Harvard's dean for diversity and community partnership. "I got helped myself through that door, and I think I've been able to push it open a little more so others can come through. I see my role as keeping that door open, and helping others move through it. My goal is to make sure that the kinds of great potential that's out there doesn't get lost, and that people really can fulfill their dreams."
Reede, who manages a staff of about 20 and oversees all diversity activities at Harvard for students, trainees, faculty and staff, recently was named winner of the Herbert W. Nickens Award, which is presented each year by the Association of American Medical Colleges to an individual who has made outstanding contributions to promoting justice in medical education and healthcare. Reede, whose career choice was influenced, ironically enough, by some fictional white doctors on television -- Kildare and Casey, among others -- will accept the award during the AAMC's annual meeting in Washington in early November.
For Reede, who believes change isn't happening quickly enough, the results of her efforts over the past 15 years have been impressive. Working with dozens of outside groups, including local businesses, foundations and private donors, she has created more than a dozen minority programs that have touched the lives of thousands of young men and women.
"Do I see myself as making a difference?" Reede asks, sitting in her cramped office in Gordon Hall on the medical school's campus southwest of Boston's historic downtown area. "I struggle with that. Every six or nine months, I ask myself that question. It's hard for me to say. That's not how I view myself. I view myself as trying to make a difference, trying to figure out what role I'm supposed to play here. I think the statistics indicate that there's been progress here."
The results highlight a steady success for Reede and her programs. Since 1990, Harvard has registered a 137% jump in the number of faculty members who are underrepresented minorities: blacks, Hispanics, American Indians and Alaskan natives. The total number of faculty members increased by about 51% during that same period. Yet while the minority population among medical students at Harvard remains high, and the total number of minority residents is at the national average, the percentage of minority faculty at the school, about 5.5% in 2005, remains fairly low, slightly below the national rate of about 7% for the estimated 114,000 faculty employed at U.S. medical schools as of Dec. 31, 2004.
"There's a recognition here that you don't deal with minority faculty just at the faculty level," she says. "If you don't have more people coming through the pipeline, you are not going to be successful. But I think we're moving in the right direction."
The number of residents also has increased dramatically for those minority groups, increasing 113% during the last 15 years, while the total number of doctors-in-training rose by only 72%. This year, about 25% of the students at Harvard Medical School are members of under-represented minority groups, among the highest rates in the nation, easily eclipsing the national average of about 16%.
Joseph Martin, a physician and dean of the faculty at Harvard Medical School, calls Reede one of the most important and influential individuals in the nation on issues involving minorities in healthcare. She has made significant contributions not only in the numbers of minority students, but also in the way Harvard is perceived in the community and elsewhere, he says.
"Our medical-school class is the most diverse of any of the medical schools except the historically black colleges," Martin says. "That's been the result of people like Joan making our face friendly and visible and committed to this issue. But we do have a lot more work to do."
He calls Reede "a person of enormous passion and great energy who accomplishes more than any of us can understand how she gets it done."
As if to underscore the long-term nature of that intricate mission, Reede wheeled her late-model Volvo up to Cambridge one day in mid-August to speak off-the-cuff to a group of about 16 inner-city youths participating in a program called Youth Opportunity Boston. In a cramped conference room in a building across the street from Harvard Yard, Reede provided a freewheeling synopsis of her own background and success, the importance of education and the endless possibilities that present themselves, even to the kinds of underprivileged kids seated before her "who probably have never even been across the Charles River."
At one point, she asked the group if anyone had any idea of the percentage of minority physicians in America today.
"Thirty-five percent?" one young man replied.
"Forty?" asked another tentatively.
"When you go to the hospital, how many black doctors do you see?" Reede asks. "Well, less than 6% of the doctors in the U.S. are minorities. As the population gets larger, the number of minority doctors is not growing. We need to do something about that."
Later, on the short drive back to the medical-school campus, she expresses amazement that a group of teens who may never have even seen a black doctor for treatment believes there are so many of them out there in practice. It's those kinds of misperceptions she's been dealing with all her life, Reede says, and she bemoans her continuing struggle against the widely held stereotype that Harvard is so cloistered and elite that it is off-limits to kids like these from the poor neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester.
"One of the problems is that there are very few people who believe that Harvard actually does what we do," she says with a wry smile. "When I talk to people about these programs, the reaction is: `Harvard has summer camps for inner-city youths? Harvard has after-school programs?' "
Her experience with the teens in the conference room, she adds, helps keep her focused, underscoring the vital importance of her work. "There have been times when I thought about leaving what I'm doing," she says. "But when you attend a session like that, you say to yourself, `I need to be doing this.' "
Asked whether she ever despairs at the relatively slow pace of progress, she says, "If I thought I was going to solve the problems of the world by myself, I could easily get depressed and overwhelmed. I have a very small role in this. But that's all right -- it'll be my role."
A Harvard `oddity'
Reede half-jokingly describes herself as an "oddity" at Harvard -- one of the relatively few Beantown natives who work at the renowned local institution that draws top scholars, academics, researchers and scientists from around the world. "Lots of people here are from elsewhere," she says. "Not many were actually born here."
She nimbly sidesteps questions about the controversy over Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who triggered a national uproar earlier this year when he suggested that three key factors might contribute to limiting the number of women in top scientific positions: Innate biological differences from men; the societal pressures of prejudice; and the stresses of family life. Reede says only that she hopes the controversy "raised some awareness and sensitivity" to those issues.
A tall woman with a commanding presence and an air of quiet authority, Reede wanted to be a nurse when she was growing up in a coastal community 25 miles southeast of Boston with two younger brothers and parents who had never gone to college. Her mother, Tommye Loretta Reede, eventually earned her college degree the same year that Reede graduated from medical school, a source of great pride for both women.
"There was not a time that I can remember when I didn't think I was supposed to make a difference, or have a purpose, or do something with my life," she says. "And I never, ever felt that there was something I couldn't do because I was a woman or because I was black."
She says she reconsidered her career choice in nursing after watching a handful of television programs featuring kindly, worldly, omniscient physicians who all seemed to be in complete control of their environment.
"By the seventh grade, I'd seen all these programs on television -- Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare -- and what I saw in those programs was that doctors were the ones in charge. And so, in the seventh grade, I decided I needed to be a doctor -- because I wanted to be in charge."
When she was assessing her options for college, Reede decided to focus on Brown University, the elite Ivy League school in Providence, R.I. Her high-school guidance counselor advised her against it, suggesting that she would never be accepted at one of the most selective private institutions in the nation.
Of course, she was.
Reede, smiling broadly, received some wide-eyed reaction from the teens as she recalled that long-ago conversation. "Has anyone ever told you that you can't do something?" she asked them. "My high-school guidance counselor said, `You shouldn't apply to Brown, because you won't get in.' I got angry. And so I only applied to one college. And it was the one my guidance counselor told me I couldn't get into."
Before joining the faculty at Harvard, she served as medical director of a Boston community health center and the state's department of youth services, working as a pediatrician in juvenile prisons. The two jobs had a major impact on her future role in trying to provide kids with the basic outline of a promising future.
"Part of what I see shaping me into where I am now is this sort of multiple experience" in the past, Reede says. "That helped me really to understand that unless we can get our kids educated you'll never get them to understand that they can have a future, that they can make a difference, that life can be better."
In addition to her position as dean, Reede has a host of titles at Harvard, where she is director of the Minority Faculty Development Program and faculty director of the Community Outreach Programs, overseeing about 15 initiatives that target students of all ages, some as young as 6 or 7.
"It was clear to me the first time I met her in 1995 that she was an extraordinary person -- very bright, imaginative," says William Silen, a physician whom Reede replaced when he left his post as head of the minority development program in 2001. "She has all sorts of wonderful ideas to enhance diversity."
`She does not give up'
Reede, a divorcee with a 19-year-old daughter, says she usually starts her day at about 5 a.m., when she tries to get in a little exercise in between e-mail exchanges with colleagues. Reede says she's at one of her two offices on the medical-school campus by 7: 30 or 8 a.m. and typically doesn't leave until 7 p.m. or later. She spends so much time in her office, she says, that her daughter used to keep a sleeping bag under a desk, just in case the days ran exceptionally long.
Reede, somewhat of a workaholic, says she has "high expectations for myself and for my staff."
"I expect people to do their best at all times," she says. "I think this is important work."
Shortly after arriving at Harvard in 1990, she created the Biomedical Science Careers Program, which encourages students from the middle-school level and above to take an interest in science. Younger participants learn about research laboratories and science careers; high school and college students receive help with everything from coursework to medical-school applications. In 15 years, more than 4,200 students have participated in a broad initiative that few thought was destined for success.
"For about the first year and a half, everybody around here was calling it `Joan's Fantasy' because no one figured I could find 100 kids to attend the program," she says.
About 300 kids attended the inaugural program. This year's conference drew almost 800.
Silen, who supervised Reede for about six years before she assumed his post, recalled that it was her persistence and dedication that prevailed, helping transform many skeptics.
"There were people who said some of her programs would never get off the ground," he recalls. "But she does not give up. I think her impact nationally may be even more pronounced than it is at Harvard."
In 1995, Reede founded the Commonwealth Fund-Harvard University Fellowship in Minority Health, which is aimed at stoking interest among minority physicians in helping meet the health needs of minority populations. Among the other highlights of her minority initiatives is the Visiting Clerkship Program, which was launched in 1990 and is designed to funnel minority students into academic medicine. About 670 third- and fourth-year minority medical students have participated, and about 20 have gone on to join Harvard's faculty.
In Reede's view, the medical profession isn't the only one lacking minority representation. So, too, is the hospital industry, she says. "There's only a tiny percentage of minority hospital administrators," she says. "In terms of racial and ethnic diversity, there's an underrepresentation when you go from clinical practice to academe to administration to leadership positions. But I see some positive signs.
"One of the things that makes it all bearable for me is that I know change is inevitable. Maybe not in my lifetime, but it's inevitable," Reede says. "Effort, time and perseverance. It will happen."
Family: Divorced, one daughter, and 19
Education: Bachelor of Science in biochemistry from Brown University, Providence, R.I., 1977; M.D., Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, 1980; Master of Science in public health, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, 1990; Master of Science in health policy and management, Harvard School of Public Health, 1992
Previous jobs: medical director, Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, Boston, and pediatrician, Boston Public Schools, 1983-86; medical director, Mattapan Community Health Center, Boston, 1987-89