- College of Medicine Faculty News
The musical West Side Story is set in the 1950s, but its themes – prejudice, stereotypes and how environment influences delinquent behavior – remain today, Dr. Lisa Barkley, the College of Medicine’s assistant dean of diversity and inclusion, told Orlando theater goers October 8.
The Orlando Shakespeare Theater, which put on the classic American musical during the last four weeks, organized post-performance community discussions with the goal of using the play as a catalyst for talking about diversity, inclusion and lasting cultural change. Dr. Barkley, who also is a medical school faculty member and specializes in family, adolescent and sports medicine, hosted a discussion with Eric Eichenlaub, a UCF fine arts student who played the role of Officer Krupke, a policeman with a penchant for violence toward the Puerto Rican street gang on his watch.
Dr. Barkley explained that while society is becoming more diverse, we must all work to make our culture more inclusive.
“When people are different, they come from different perspectives, and often they don’t know how to cross those perspectives to understand each other or to make a difference together,” she said.
Dr. Barkley told participants how the College of Medicine’s curriculum incorporates the topics of inclusion and cultural competency and said education as a whole must do the same.
“So many things are changing about the demographics of this country,” she said. “There are bigger splits between haves and have-nots. We need to incorporate diversity and inclusion content into our curricula. Otherwise we’re not going to prepare any student, especially medical students, for the world today.”
Melissa Mason Braillard, the Orlando Shakespeare’s director of marketing communications, said the theater believes West Side Story can increase public understanding about issues like inclusiveness, intolerance, race relations and poverty, noting that Orlando’s recent Pulse shooting in Orlando and tensions between law enforcement and minority populations have increased the need for such discussions.
“We decided to use the play as a tool to either keep conversations about these topics going or spark conversations around these topics beyond the performance experience,” she said.
Eichenlaub said that growing up in rural Minnesota has made him painfully aware of the lack of diversity in his early life experiences. As an actor, he said he values working with actors who are different from him and seeks roles that are beyond his own experiences.
“One of the great things about modern society is we have so much more access to these voices,” he said. “You know, I don’t have the same experiences as an African-American actor. What he or she can do is totally different than anything I can do. Listening to someone else allows me to check who I am, hear their experience and acknowledge their reality as something that’s worth talking about.”
Despite greater access to disparate voices, bias persists. According to the Pew Research Center, 52 percent Hispanics in the United States say that they have recently experienced some sort of discrimination on account of their ethnicity. Seventy percent of African-Americans believe racial discrimination keeps them from getting ahead. LGBTQ+ individuals still experience slurs and exclusion, according to national polls. .
That bias can creep into medicine as well. Dr. Barkley told theater participants how she works with at-risk youth in her clinical role. “You see them going from place to place to place in the system, oftentimes never getting the help or understanding that they need to move forward,” she said.
“There’s a lot of scientific evidence that there’s health disparities – that certain groups of people get treated better than others. That costs our health care system trillions of dollars, and it means that people don’t get good care.”
UCF med students are learning how greater sensitivity to their own ingrained biases will ultimately make them better doctors.
“As a health care provider, I have to make sure that I leave at the door any kind of prejudice or judgment I have about a person when I walk in the room,” Dr. Barkley said. “We’re teaching our medical students about cultural competency and being self-aware so they don’t succumb to pre-conceived notions.”