Strictly Business: Women of Influence

Dr. Joan Y. Reede, MD, MS, MPH, MBA;
Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership

It’s no secret that Dr. Joan Y. Reede is an esteemed member of the world’s most prestigious medical and academic communities. With more degrees than most can hope to garner in a lifetime, Dr. Reede’s accomplishments are innumerable. What you might not know about Dr. Reede, though, is that her career has been routed in youth advocacy, or that she is deeply invested in social justice and attributes much of her success to the support of her close-knit family. On being considered a ‘trailblazer,’ Dr. Reede says she is simply on the “continuum of doing what’s right and getting organizations to do what’s right.”

In 1990, Dr. Reede founded the Harvard Medical School Minority Faculty Development Program and currently also serves as Faculty Director of the Community Outreach Programs. In 2008, she became the Director of the Harvard Catalyst Program for Faculty Development and Diversity. Prior to joining HMS, Dr. Reede served as the medical director for a Boston community health center and for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. Dr. Reede has also worked as a pediatrician in community health centers, juvenile prisons and public schools.

Dr. Reede graduated from Brown University and Mount Sinai School of Medicine. After completing her pediatric residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, she completed her fellowship in child psychiatry at Boston Children’s Hospital. Dr. Reede holds an MPH and an MS in Health Policy and Management from Harvard School of Public Health, along with an MBA from Boston University.

Dr. Reede, you are an extremely accomplished woman and you hold multiple degrees from some of the world’s most prestigious institutions. Was there a pivotal moment in your life when you knew you were interested in pursuing a career in medicine and health?

If I had to think about the point in my life where I wanted to pursue a career in health was probably sometime in middle school when I wanted to be a nurse. That’s what I wanted to be first, and it was largely related to what I read. In the library, most of the stories were about a Nancy Drew type and everybody was a nurse. In seventh grade, I switched to wanting to be a doctor and it was largely because of what I saw on television: Marcus Welby and Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey. What I noticed in these shows is that the doctors seemed to be in charge. The doctors were leading the programs and the activities. I never recognized that they were white; I never recognized that they were men.

On some level, I must have recognized it because you can’t deny it, but what I saw was people who were in leadership and I knew that I wanted to be in charge and be a leader.

So in seventh grade I changed what I wanted to do from being a nurse to being a doctor. I didn’t really understand more than what I saw on television.

I had a skewed view of what being in charge meant because it was based on a television show. I didn’t know doctors. I had gone to a program as a high school student and somebody asked me what I wanted to do. I said, “Well, I want to be a pathologist.” And they said, “Why a pathologist?” And I said, “Because I want to save people and I want to cure people and treat them.” And somebody said, “Do you know what a pathologist does?” I said, “No.” And they said, “Like, uhh, dead people.” I said, “Oh! Well, who takes care of children?” And I was told, “Pediatricians,” and I said, “I want to be a pediatrician.” It was as complicated as that.

So from that point on I knew that I wanted to be a doctor. In retrospect, there’s a part of me that knew I wanted to follow my own course. A part of me knew that I wanted to help people, and also knew that I loved children. I had no idea that education would play such a big part in my life, in terms of my own education and being involved in educating others. Again, in retrospect, if I think about what I did in high school, what I did in college, what I did in medical school and residency — in each of those stages I was involved in education, from tutoring individuals to visiting classrooms to working with parent groups — it still had never occurred to me that I liked education. The issue for me was, particularly as I got older, understanding the importance of youth having role models, of youth having opportunities, and of youth understanding how important they are. That’s how I got involved in that work, and that’s part of why I do what I do today.

As teen participants at Artists For Humanity we work with professional artists and designers who serve as vital role models in both our personal and professional development. Who in your life played that role? How did they inspire you on your path to success?

As I think about mentors and role models, they probably fit into two categories. One I would call my core foundational mentors or role models. All three are deceased and they are my grandmother, my mother and my aunt for very different reasons in terms of what they gave me.

Three extremely strong women, three women who were deeply faithful and had a strong sense of family and a sense that your life had to be about doing something; that your life needed to make a difference, big or small, but it needed to be about doing something. Of those three women, my grandmother — who was a rock — was this tall, stately, amazing black woman, taller than I am and I’m very tall.

My image of my grandmother is — she lived and was born in the South — walking down railroad tracks in a segregated city where one side is paved, one side is not. The paved side was white; the unpaved side was black. I was walking down these railroad tracks behind this tall woman to the center of town, just trying to keep up with her, her shoulders back. She cleaned houses and she cooked and she was amazing! For my grandmother it was about God, it was about family, and it was about using your gifts to do something wonderful. She only went to about fifth grade and was raised by her grandmother who was actually born a slave; she was just an amazing woman.

Then I have my mother who’s probably the smartest person I’ve ever known. She graduated from college the year I graduated from medical school. She did all sorts of things from selling Avon, to being a librarian, to heading finances at a legal office, to the Redevelopment Authority, to working at a college. Again, she was committed to God, family and purpose. She started and formed all sorts of things in our town such as the senior center. She was the lead in the Sunday school. There wasn’t anything that she couldn’t do. She was just smart!

I come from a family, like so many black families, where being an aunt does not mean that there’s any blood relation. It just means; this is your aunt, you know what I’m talking about. Aunt Amanda was this amazing woman who, I think in the 1920s, graduated from Radcliffe. Do you know what it meant to be a black woman who graduated from Radcliffe back then?

So you have these women, one woman with a fifth grade education who cleans homes, another woman who graduated from college when I graduated from medical school, and the other woman who is Radcliffe grad. And they’re all good friends and all interact and work together. My aunt was a hard worker. She was the one who taught me about the power of community action, about people coming together to create change, and about the importance of having a voice particularly around issues of injustice. My mother was right there, too. I remember coming out of school to go on marches against the war with my mother that was very interesting because my father was in the army. We won’t even go there in terms of what it was like in the house! Very strong women who thought this is what’s right and this is what’s not right, so you stand up for what’s right. So, that was my family set.

I talk about them as role models and mentors because these were people who understood my heart. They understood who I was. These were the people who said you could be and do anything. These were also the people that were able to snatch me back if they thought my head was getting too big. They kept me grounded. So as you talk about this path to success, I’m sure they’re very proud of me.

But for them success was how you lived your life and the difference you made. You could be proud of a title but a title was not going to get anywhere by itself.

I come from a family where they had all these home remedies. You knew not to cough in front of my grandmother because if you did she would pull out that jar she mixed her concoction in, you never wanted, because it tasted horrible. It was greyish green and tasted bad. My then husband told her I had coughed, so of course she made up a jar of this stuff. I told her I had taken it, but I hadn’t. So the next day, I was going to meet her, and we got to the parking lot, and there was this woman with a jar and a spoon standing in the parking lot saying, “Take the medicine.” I said, “I don’t want to take the medicine, I’m a doctor!” And she said, “I don’t care if you’re a doctor, I’ve lived longer!” So the doctor took the medicine, her concoction. It’s a wonderful example of, ‘I know you’re a doctor and I’m proud but don’t get your head too big. Respect your elders.’

I have this other set of people in my career who are more on the professional side who have been able to accept that what I do is not necessarily the norm. The things that I’m interested in don’t necessarily follow a path that other people follow. They’re able to support me being me. They have been male and female, white, black, Hispanic across the board. They are able to get behind me going in whichever direction I want. So there’s my family, their grounding and belief in me, and then there’s this other set of people who say, “You know Joan, I don’t quite get it, but I want to help you get to wherever it is you want to go.” It is those two groups who have supported and believed in me.

In a previous interview, you mentioned that you pursued your career direction without any notion that you would be the first African American woman to hold such high positions. At what point did you recognize that you were a trailblazer? How are you continuing this trend in today’s society?

Your question is interesting because when you ask, “At what point did you recognize you were a trailblazer,” I don’t really think of myself as a trailblazer…at all. I think of myself as being in a continuum of people who have paved a way for me to be here. If other people had not been willing to make the sacrifices, if they had not been willing to be the first, you wouldn’t be sitting in my office now. I wouldn’t have been offered admission to the schools I attended. There were people who came before me to set the stage for me to enter, and there were people who set the stage for them.

I just think of this as a continuum of creating social change. It’s a continuum of moving towards justice and equity. It’s a continuum of doing what’s right and getting organizations to do what’s right. I really don’t think of myself as a trailblazer.

The older I get, the more I realize that for some I may be a role model. That’s just interesting. It’s interesting in the sense, for some I’m a role model, but when I go home to my daughter I’m not a role model; I’m just mom. It’s like this, “What do you mean you didn’t cook?” I’m mom. And more importantly, I’m grandma for my grandchildren. For them I’m not a trailblazer or anything, I’m just, “Mayma, will you hold me? Will you walk with me?” So I just don’t think of myself in that way. What I do think I am able to do, and I have been blessed to be able to do, is to be in positions where I can help others to be a part of that continuum to continue beyond me. There’s this period of opportunity before me where I have this small window of space in time, so how do I open the door or set the stage for other people to step in and continue going forward?

According to the 2014 World Health Organization report, the United States ranked 37th out of 191 countries. From your perspective, how does a superpower such as the U.S. perform so poorly? And what needs to be done in order to guarantee all of our citizens’ health and well-being?

I don’t have the answers for all of this. When I think of some of the issues around health and well-being and where we are as a nation, I think so much of our effort has been focused on clinical care in a provider’s office. Do I think that’s important? Yes. I’m a pediatrician so of course I think that’s important, but so much of what happens to people around their health does not happen in a doctor’s office. There are all of these determinants, all of these factors in the lives of people that determine how healthy they are. These are things that we don’t normally associate with health care.

If you live in poverty, if you don’t have access to healthy foods, if you can’t get a quality education so you can’t get a good job — all of those things play a role in terms of the health of the individual or the health of a family, or the health of a community. In our country, I don’t think we attend to those issues as well as we could. I think we silo them. It’s like you over here take care of food, and you over here take care of poverty and you over here take care of this. And so you can partition a person into all these areas, but you’re talking about the same individuals or the same families.

Those silos and not attending to the various determinants of health are part of the problem. The other part is there is great inequality between those who have and those who don’t have and also poor communication and lack of understanding across the channels.

It’s having expectations of people to ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ but not giving anybody any boots.

The depth of that divide is increasing. Do I think we can have health and well-being in our nation for everyone without addressing that? No. As we talk about public health over here and healthcare over there, all of these issues have to start to come together if we’re really going to create a healthy nation. It has to happen in a way where the community and the patients and the individuals are all involved. So if you truly believe in diversity, the answers are not in the physician’s head, the nurse’s head, or the public health person’s head alone. It’s actually: ‘How does all of this come together?’ The patients and community have to be a part of that answer.

What is one piece of career advice you would like to offer our teens?

Be true to your values in all that you do. Find your purpose and your passion, and then pursue it without any hesitation.

Among Dr. Joan Reede’s many awards are the Boston NAACP Health Award for her contributions to the health of the Boston minority community; the Community Service Award from the Epilepsy Association of Massachusetts; the American Association of University Administrators Exemplary Models of Administrative Leadership Award; the Herbert W. Nickens Award from the Society of General Internal Medicine; the Herbert W. Nickens Award from the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Academic Leadership in Primary Care Award from Morehouse School of Medicine.