In 2006 filmmaker Crystal Emery was feeling dejected after an illness left her living with quadriplegia. A friend’s challenge to “create something,” and a hospital stay, motivated her to begin documenting the medical profession as it intersects with Black American lives. “Everything negative that can happen to you in the hospital because of race, happened to me,” she recalls. “Here you are in pain and you have to advocate for yourself. In other words, you have to kick somebody’s ass to survive.”

The traumatic experience prompted Emery to produce her first feature-length documentary, “The Deadliest Disease in America,” focusing on barriers of access to health care and the unequal treatment that individuals often receive based on color, race, gender and religion.

Emery was attracted to filmmaking because it allowed her to broaden the scope of images of Black life in the media. “I’ve dedicated my life to changing the narrative regarding how we see ourselves and how other people see us,” she declared in a recent interview with Amsterdam News. Since then, she has doubled down on creating content with social impact.

In addition to making films, Emery is founder and CEO of URU, The Right to Be, Inc., a nonprofit content production company that uses film, theater, publishing and other arts-based initiatives to address social issues. She is the author of the novel “Without A Trace,” and several nonfiction books including “Against All Odds,” an image-rich volume which traces the history of Black women in medicine in America.

Emery points out that only 2% of America’s doctors are Black women and delivers another sobering statistic. “Assuming that any physicians practicing now will have retired by 2060 that would require an average of 11,709 Hispanic/Latino and 5,854 African American graduates per year from 2018 to 2060. Currently, less than 3,000 graduate from medical school each year.”

Emery believes this requires us to empower Black women and girls to see themselves as doctors. “If you don’t see images that look like you that are particularly young, you don’t see a pathway.”

The story Emery tells about former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, whose ambition when starting college was to be a chemistry teacher, is instructive. Benjamin ended up making a fun bet with some of her study buddies about who could get the highest score on the MCATs, the test used by medical schools’ admissions offices. To everyone’s surprise, Benjamin won the bet. “In that moment,” emphasized Emery, “she could see herself as a doctor.”

Emery’s most recent film, “Black Women in Medicine,” aims to create more Regina Benjamins. Its focus is Black women in medicine, a subject the mainstream news cycle has only recently caught up with after the tragic death of Dr. Susan Moore from COVID. A graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School, Moore made an impassioned video on social media, detailing the shoddy care she was receiving which she felt was due to her race. “When we think about Dr. Susan Moore,” said Emery, “even while dying she set the bar for spiritual warriorship.”

Her concern over COVID’s impact on Black and Brown communities led Emery to launch a new initiative called Our Humanity, which she describes as a “multifaceted risk reduction education and prevention initiative focused on diffusing the deadly impact of COVID-19 in Black, Latino and Indigenous communities via infographics, video messages, community organizing and partnership building and Instagram Live conversations.”

“Black Women in Medicine” is an informative, celebratory chronicling of the experience and history of Black women in medicine in America. It features a number of young doctors as well as people such as noted historian Darlene Clark Hine. Some of the women highlighted come from humble beginnings. One subject, Karen Priester-Morris, was the mother of five when she began her journey to become a doctor, culminating in an M.D. from Yale Medical School.

Part of being able to project oneself onto a medical career, Emery feels, is mentorship; stated Emery: “Becoming a doctor is a very hard journey. For medical positions with long residencies while everybody else is starting to get married and have babies that blocks a lot of young Black women. If you don’t have a mentor, you don’t see anyone else walking down that lane, it can block you.”

Emery also points out the structural inequalities that call into question the soundness of medical schools’ reliance on just test scores for admission. “There are high schools in my city of New Haven,” she begins, “where there are no physics classes, no high chemistry classes, so how does a student graduating from that high school make their way into college having to major in Biology or Chemistry?”

She also cautions parents to have minds broad enough to conceive of their children becoming doctors. “Parents who can’t see themselves as doctors, can’t see their children as doctors so our community doesn’t push us to go beyond the current barriers.”

Along those same lines, she talks about observing students play her virtual reality game, “You Can’t Be What You Can’t See.” She explains, “The participant gets to choose to be either a doctor or an IV technician. A large majority of Black and Brown young people choose the technician when they don’t even know what it is, versus the doctors. It just demonstrates their own self-belief about what they can achieve.”

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