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Walter Conwell understands just how powerful it can be to have an effective support system. The chief diversity and inclusion officer and interim senior associate dean for faculty affairs, academic and professional development at the Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) grew up in a single-parent home in Gary, Indiana, a city often invoked as an example of American decline. His graduating class had more than a 50 percent drop-out rate, and he is one of few from his class who made it through college. Conwell did all this while raising a young child.
Conwell says he has no idea how it would have managed it all without the support he received at Florida A&M University, a historically Black college.
“My own value for creating systems to help students thrive was really instilled in me there,” Conwell explains. “I feel very confident that I would not have made it through had it not been for the people and programs that created a foundation for me to succeed.”
At medical school at the University of Chicago, Conwell was the first Black student to be inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society, and he graduated with honors. After training at the University of Colorado and working within the Kaiser Permanente system, he was appointed the first chief diversity and inclusion officer at Morehouse School of Medicine, one of four historically Black medical colleges, in 2021.
“The collective efforts of Black medical schools over more than a hundred years have dramatically increased the number of Black and Brown medical students,” Conwell explains. “But we’ve also hit a plateau where less than 20 percent of all medical students are people of color.”
The Morehouse School of Medicine has decided to take bold steps to address this plateau. The organization, in partnership with CommonSpirit Health, will open five new regional medical school campuses across the country. Locations will include Seattle; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Lexington, Kentucky, with the other sites yet to be announced.
Conwell says the partnership will allow MSM to double its medical student enrollment and produce up to three hundred physicians every year. The students will receive training in Atlanta for two years before being sent elsewhere to complete their studies.
In preparing for this expansion, Conwell says it’s imperative to provide students with the support they need to succeed and give them the tools to make a positive impact on their communities.
“Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, MSM president, charged me with developing a scalable development program for our new faculty and staff across the country,” Conwell explains. “Some of that work involves using innovative technology like virtual and augmented reality and app-based platforms to ensure that we’re not only able to train, but really coach, our faculty, staff, and frontline workers all over the country to be more culturally humble.”
Conwell comes back to the idea of cultural humility several times; it’s predicated on lifelong learning and critical self-reflection and entering a new community with partnership and understanding in mind.
“Consider our site in Seattle,” he says. “The main marginalized group in that area is not Black or Brown, but American Indian and Pacific Islander. Given our context as a historically Black school, we certainly understand a lot about struggle and resilience, but that doesn’t mean we know about their communities.”
Through the platform Conwell aims to build, MSM will partner will community leaders and organizations to build pathway and pipeline programs. Conwell hopes they will be able to identify students of promise who can one day graduate from medical school at MSM.
“This is about building systems that continue to pay off over long periods of time, both for people and their communities,” he explains. “Each of these areas has its own unique challenges, and we are hoping to build the capacity of an entirely new system across the country to think about their challenges with humility and consider how we can all work together to lift all boats.”
A guiding principle for much of his work at MSM, Conwell says, is the advancement of health equity. He notes that MSM’s Satcher Health Leadership Institute and the work of its former executive director, Daniel Dawes, strive to address what have come to be called the political determinants of health.
“The political determinants of health involve the systematic process of structuring relationships, distributing resources, and administering power, operating simultaneously in ways that mutually reinforce or influence one another to shape opportunities that either advance health equity or exacerbate health inequities,” Dawes writes in his book The Political Determinants of Health.
“We often hear about the social determinants of health, but the further you go upstream, the more you’re able to see how political and policy decisions ultimately have social and health consequences,” Conwell explains. “We spend a great deal of time considering these upstream factors.”
His efforts are appreciated outside the university as well. “We couldn’t ask for a better partner than Walter Conwell and Morehouse School of Medicine for helping us develop a new role in healthcare—the health equity coach,” says Alan Roga, CEO of TruLite Health. “He has been instrumental in helping us to build a program that can scale and have a long-term impact.”
The work the Morehouse School of Medicine continues to do will impact thousands of future physicians and healthcare workers. Like Conwell, these are people who might not have made it through without guidance and support, but who will go on to serve their communities, advancing health equity across the country.