We are all born with potential, but not all of us are given the opportunity to realize it. This is particularly true of young people of color. The RISE for Youth program seeks to bridge the gap, with a first-of-its-kind collaboration between Mayo Clinic and the NAACP (Rochester), designed to help underrepresented students find power against those odds. Featuring RISE for Youth program leader Walé Elegbede, and two rising star students, Host Lee Hawkins leads this candid conversation on the impact of representation on our youth’s success.
“The beauty about this is, we’re not going to decide, they’re going to decide what they want to do. So, if they want to work in the health care field, that’s perfectly fine. We are going to support them. But if you want to, for example, become a restaurant owner or a small business, we’re going to support you along that journey.” – Walé Elegbede
“I would say my biggest highlight is when I first started to put it on my institution, I noticed I could count all the black students on one hand. So in contrast to this program, the seeing, the diversity and people of color and having the same shared lived experiences with them, I feel seen and heard and empowered to grow as an individual just because there’s a sense of there’s a sense of belonging.” – Faizza Omar
“Now I feel like I can truly be myself and thrive.” – Safa Sheikhibraihim
Read the transcript:
Lee Hawkins: Welcome to the Mayo Clinic Rise for Equity podcast. I’m your host, Lee Hawkins. And in this episode we’re going to feature some of the rising stars at the Rise for Youth program, which is a first of its kind collaboration between Mayo Clinic and the Rochester branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And it’s designed to help black and underrepresented students transform themselves from youth with potential to competitive and empowered talent entering the workforce.
Lee Hawkins: I want to welcome Walé Elegbede, who’s director of Strategic Management Services at Mayo Clinic. He’s also president of the Rochester NAACP, and he leads the program. And Walé, you have two special students you brought along today. I’m going to let you introduce them – the Rise Scholars.
Walé Elegbede: Yeah, we’re so proud of them. So we have Safa Sheikhibrahim and Faizaa Omar, scholars from our Rise Up cohort who are just doing a lot of great things. Both of them go to the University of Minnesota, Rochester and are absolutely future leaders. They inspire me. And, you know, I think they will inspire the rest of you, too.
Lee Hawkins: Welcome to both of you. Before we get too far into this, I want to give a little bit more background on the program. The goal is to create new pathways for success by providing students with critical educational and leadership skills training and long term mentoring for successful careers in health care, science and beyond. Tell me more about the program, because it just started right? This is the first year?
Walé Elegbede: Absolutely.
Lee Hawkins: Okay. How does the program work?
Walé Elegbede: It’s a four week program. And in terms of first of all, why are we doing this? I think it’s important to understand that. So when you look at Minnesota, it’s one of the worst performing when it comes to racial equality. And this has a huge impact on employment and education disparities. And so we wanted to have a program that really targeted those systemic issues. When you think about social determinants of health, as you all are very familiar with, I mean, education plays a critical role. So the way that the program works, it’s a four week program where we have the two cohorts: the Rise Up and then the Rise High. And the focus is really more on leadership development, application of leadership skills, the long term mentoring and also access.
You know, we don’t talk about access a lot, but that’s really key. If you’re a parent, what do you do for your family, for your kids? You support them. You give them the education, you give them the mentoring. You also open up doors and access. And so that’s one thing that we’re also hoping will come out of this.
Lee Hawkins: Okay. Are you speaking about trying to get more doctors or is it health care professionals in general?
Walé Elegbede: So the beauty about this is we’re not going to decide. They’re going to decide what they want to do. So if you want to work in the health care field, that’s perfectly fine. We are going to support them. But if you want to, for example, become a restaurant owner or a small business, we’re going to support you along that journey. So this is not apipeline to come work for Mayo Clinic. It’s really we want to support you because investing in the community, investing in our youth is so critical. That was really critical for me when we were starting this. And there was strong support across the board and great partners like Dr. Bhagra, Barbara Jordan, and others. And so it’s really critical to make sure that, look, this is not just a pipeline to get into Mayo. We want to make sure that you can get a good job and you can thrive. Whatever you decide to do.
Lee Hawkins: And do you know what you are looking at possibly doing?
Safa Sheikhibrahim : Yes. I want to become a surgeon. I’m in my fourth year of my undergrad and I have one semester left, so I’ll be applying for medical school next year.
Lee Hawkins: Okay.
Faizaa Omar : Likewise. I’m in my fourth year and my last semester as well, and I want to become a physician assistant. I’m not sure what I want to specialize in, but that’s where I’m headed.
Lee Hawkins: Okay. So this is a program that’s working in partnership with Mayo Clinic. So it would make sense that if you did have an interest in medicine, you’re in the right place. It’s important for me to introduce some of the data first before we get too deep into this. About 2.6% of the nation’s doctors in 2019 and 7.3% of students enrolled in medical school in 2020 identified as black or African-American. And despite efforts to bolster the ranks of black doctors, the figure still lagged the 13% of blacks in the overall population. What does this mean for our country? The projected growth of racial minority populations will drive demand for two thirds of new doctors over the next decade and a half. Nearly 45,000 new doctors will be needed to care for the Hispanic population, the nation’s fastest growing population.
And in 2019, only 3.8% of doctors identified as Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin. So this is across marginalized communities. If you put some doctors into the pipeline, that’s going to be really powerful because of the fact that there’s such a shortfall right now. We’re all excited for the prospects. Tell me about the four week curriculum.
Walé Elegbede: It’s really backed by a very robust curriculum development. So we designed this very intentional. There’s also the RISE framework that we’re using that was developed by Dr. Bhagra. But basically the first week was really more about leadership. So we talked about servant leadership and we brought in a lot of strong, knowledgeable top leaders. We’ve talked about servant leadership, emotional intelligence, developing respectful relationships, you know, EQ. I mean, these are all power skills. So we’re not teaching calculus or anything like that, but we’re teaching about what is the DNA for strong leadership. You need to be able to communicate, you need to be plan stuff, you need to have strategic focus. So that’s what we sort of introduce the first week. The second week is really about how do you apply that, right? And then there’s also a career fair and then the importance of giving back to community, because again, we want this to live beyond all of us. At least that’s my hope. And so, you know, there are current leaders and they’re going to have to give back and really teach others what you’ve learned. And that’s how we as a society, we improve. So Lee, I know you mentioned to me education is so important. When I look at my background originally from Nigeria and growing up, it was really important just to see the dichotomy of if you have education versus if you don’t and those that had education, they had a better shot. It’s always obviously not always easy, but when you have a good education, you can actually achieve a lot. And so that’s why we were trying to do this, to make sure that all of our youths, first of all, the talent is there, the towns is innate. What we’re just doing is really creating the right environment for you to drive.
Lee Hawkins: I’m sure you probably have heard this at home many times about education and how critical that is. Tell me how you got interested, both of you, in the field of medicine.
Safa Sheikhibrahim : I can go first. My dad is an animal specialist and he works in the hospital. He really inspired me growing up because he was working so hard going to school while we were all in elementary school. And my mom was raising us by herself while he would go to Rochester and commute back and forth to be there for his family, but also get an education and specialize in what he wanted to do. The way he always explained it to me is I help people breathe, and I thought that was so inspiring and I knew I wanted to work in the medical field and work in health care and help people. And I’ve always been good at science, so it just fit.
Lee Hawkins: Okay.
Faizaa Omar : For me. I would say it started as a kid. My parents would always like narrate their life story back home saying that we never had an education, so it’s important for you to pursue one. I would say my interest in medicine first started when I used to attend doctor appointments with my mom. She was not really good at speaking English, so I would accompany her to translate and bridge that gap, to bridge the language barrier.
I would say that’s what first interested me, but also then I was watching TV shows. It’s kind of generic, but seeing doctors and stuff. It just seemed exciting. But I currently (work with) patient care assistance. I think seeing it firsthand and experiencing what they actually do on a day to day basis. That’s what inspired me.
Lee Hawkins: Powerful. You talked about your parents and your family. What do you know about your lineage and some of the things that were overcome that have led to the resilience that has created you?
Safa Sheikhibrahim : My parents immigrated from Somalia, so they came here and started a new life for themselves. And wanted to raise their kids better and give them opportunities that they never had as children.
Faizaa Omar : And I would say likewise, my parents were refugees and my mom, because she was fleeing to America to flee persecution, my mom didn’t get a chance to finish high school and also my dad as well. So they always reiterated education is important and it’s good to pursue one.
Lee Hawkins: So I’m sitting next to you two dynamic individuals and then I have the president of the Rochester NAACP right across from me. What is the agenda for the NAACP and participating and partnering on this program?
Walé Elegbede: Yeah, we have a simple agenda. When you look at our vision. Our vision is really we want a society where there is no racial hatred or discrimination, bold, and we get there through true equity and social justice. We’re very intentional about that. When you look at the history of our country from civil rights, voting rights, reproductive rights, even in terms of just education, or even the integration of the military, the NAACP has been at the forefront. I mean, just a lot of stuff that folks don’t know. So for us we want to use equity to really lift everybody up. I mean, these are human rights and really important. So obviously when we drill down a little bit further, you have all these social determinants of health. I mean, obviously with COVID, we saw a lot of disparities. African-American brothers and sisters, our native brothers and sisters. And so for us, it’s really making sure that all of America’s children are able to fully live up to their potential. And that means making sure that there is no racial discrimination and hatred. And it’s really also just having solid plans in place. So the Rise for Youth is an example of that. It’s going to take more than Mayo Clinic to be able to address this. This is more like a catalyst, right, where we are hoping this becomes an example, a model for others. But it’s not hard stuff when I think about some of our societal issues. It just has to be just more intention, right? And then you commit to it, because what we’re doing at RISE, I mean, it’s started because after the murder of George Floyd, as organizations were reflecting, we had conversations with trusted partners and Mayo and they had made a commitment, a $100 million commitment, to end racism.
And we were looking at, well, what can we do locally? And also how we expand the program. And it just sort of fit. So the NAACP agenda is really we want to realize that vision and it’s can definitely be done.
Lee Hawkins: What was powerful is yesterday I was at an event with some of the top diversity and inclusion people from Mayo, Dr. Bhagra and Barbara Jordan. And they said, we stand on the shoulders of giants. And of course, we’ve heard that. But that is literally the case, especially with a lot of the young people today, because of the fact that mentorship is so important. I mean, here you have someone who has dedicated his life to mentoring you. What is the power of mentorship and what kinds of ways has mentorship really led you to the journey that you’re on now?
Safa Sheikhibrahim : Well, we were set up with mentors at the end of the program, and we haven’t gotten to get in touch with them yet because we just finished the program. But all of the people that we met, all our guest speakers, all the community leaders and everyone is just so dedicated to helping us succeed in life. And they all gave us their contact information and everything. So I feel like everyone that we’ve met throughout this program is guiding me, and is there for me to assist me in any way that I need in the future.
Lee Hawkins: Tell me about the things that you like most about the program.
Safa Sheikhibrahim : The highlight of the program for me was learning about emotional intelligence. I couldn’t believe that I’m almost done with my college education, and this is the first time I’m learning about it. It is just so powerful. (I’ve been) taught us about intent versus impact, and it’s just a really important principle in communication for every relationship and every profession. So I can take this with me wherever I go.
Faizaa Omar : I would say my biggest highlight is when I first started at the institution, I noticed that I could count all the black students on one hand. So in contrast to this program, seeing the diversity and people of color and having the same shared lived experiences with them, I feel seen and heard and empowered to grow as an individual because there’s that sense of belonging and.
Lee Hawkins: Let’s face it, I grew up in Minnesota. It’s not the most diverse place. And we have to address the tension and the reason that the programs such as this exist. How has it been when you’re black in some of these predominantly white spaces with the intention of becoming a medical professional?
Faizaa Omar : I would say that you often have to do twice as much to feel seen and heard, so that could be draining. So if there were more diversity and representation in certain environments, there’s more space for sharing different perspectives and growth and then feeling safe and comfortable in that environment. And most times when you’re in a predominately white space, you feel that you have to act a certain way to feel accepted. So seeing others who look like you and have the same experience as you make you feel more comfortable and allow you to grow in that space.
Lee Hawkins: What kind of experiences have you had?
Safa Sheikhibrahim : Similar to Faizaa because we go to the same university, but this program has really helped me speak up, especially for myself. When I was in elementary school and middle school, I didn’t have a lot of people who looked like me, I didn’t have a lot of friends that were black. I didn’t have a lot of Muslim friends just because of where I lived and the schools that I went to. And now I feel like I can truly be myself and thrive in these environments.
Walé Elegbede: Representation is so important, is so key, and we hear that from students. Even in Rochester, I think they have a 40% students of color. But when you look at the instructors, very, very low diversity. And what the students are telling us is that this matters, equity matters, inclusion matters, but diversity also matters. That’s how – Faizaa mentioned it – it created her safety, right? It is so important for us to do that.
Lee Hawkins: Did you say Rochester has what percentage people?.
Walé Elegbede: In terms of the the schools, you know, it’s about 40 percent.
Lee Hawkins: Wow. That’s pretty high.
Walé Elegbede: It’s pretty high in terms of our school. But, when you look at the teachers, not so much. So again, I say this to stress that we have opportunities for equity, inclusion and diversity and to have an intentional effort to really address those.
Lee Hawkins: Coming from an organization that, let’s face it, is maybe in crisis to a certain extent in terms of youth engagement, because there was a time in the 1950s and sixties when the NAACP was maybe even led by you. And so you’re in a period as a civil rights organization wanting to be relevant and wanting to make sure that the next generation of young people are aware of the NAACP and wanting to be involved and engaged in civil rights activities. What has this done in terms of exposing you to the NAACP? Do you think you’ll be working with them in the future in any capacity?
Safa Sheikhibrahim : For sure, I don’t think I’m going to just quit after this program because it’s very inspiring and I want to pay back to the future generations what I had given to me.
Lee Hawkins: And how important is advocacy and activism to you?
Safa Sheikhibrahim : It’s very important.
Faizaa Omar : I would say to add on to that, it’s very important because some people don’t have a voice. So for us to be armed with the opportunity to learn from the RISE program in the NAACP, I feel like it’s important to give back to the community and then continue that cycle.
Lee Hawkins: What is the goal long term? What would you like to see here?
Walé Elegbede: Long term, I want none of our children to be left behind. I don’t want any wasted talent. We have so much unrealized potential. And so really these young leaders contributing strongly to society leading and helping others. That’s how we lift everybody up. So that’s what I want to see. That’s it’s so important to me. And when I talk about what’s really deeply important to me, you know, I think ethical leaders, you have a responsibility to make sure that they create a positive environment. You know, my mom used to talk about, you know, the Yoruba adage: a single woman gives birth to a child, but the whole community has an important role in playing to take care of all children. It takes a village. Nobody does it alone. We stand on the shoulders of giants, you know, whatever little that we can do for Mayo and the NAACP to impact them, and then they in turn give it to others. That’s how we get our society better. You know, it’s a simple formula. All it takes is passion, dedication and the commitment. And we can make it happen.
Lee Hawkins: What are the actionable things that people who are listening to this podcast can do right away? As soon as this podcast is over, if they want to effect change on an equity, diversity and inclusion level.
Walé Elegbede: Well, right away they can get engaged with the NAACP Rochester branch. So, you know, they can go to our website and then they can learn more about the RISE for Youth program because we need a lot of mentors, so that’s number one. The other thing is just within your local community and your respective organizations and department, just commit and put in the time to really listen. Sometimes it’s important to listen to underserved communities. And when you actually do listen, you find out what the concerns are. But you have to create this safe space. That’s where, you know, Faizaa is talking about: hey, I feel safe here. I hear that a lot within the organization, too. If you can’t create safety, you don’t know what the issues are. You don’t know what the issues are, you’re missing the boat.
Lee Hawkins: What does the commitment involve in terms of becoming a mentor for our program?
Walé Elegbede: We have two types of mentors. We have primary mentors, which is more long term, you know, so that can be a year to a lifelong mentors. It’s going to be based off of the mentor mentee relationship. But you also have flash mentors. So maybe you only have you’re a busy man, you only have 30 minutes to give or an hour to give, you know, a month. I think you could do more. But let’s say that’s what you have. Well, there’s a role for that, because then we can actually help our students. You know what? Maybe some tactical stuff, like: okay, here’s how you speak, communicator. Maybe this is how you manage your project plan or whatever, right? So whether it’s a long term mentorship or the other, the short term, there is a role for everyone to play in this.
Lee Hawkins: And I think it’s important because a lot of times people want to get engaged and involved, but they don’t know even where to start. And how big of a commitment it is and that’s why I asked. So what’s next? You’re graduating from the University of Minnesota Rochester. What’s your next step after that?
Safa Sheikhibrahim : Taking the MCAT and applying for medical school
Faizaa Omar : I would say for me it’s applying as well for PE schools and then getting in through this program and then my experiences of just college in general. I have a passion now to work in underserved communities and give back.
Lee Hawkins Okay so you’ve already decided that then. And it’s funny because at the RISE conference there’s already been a lot of talk about underserved communities and the different places where there need to be improvement in terms of racial representation and research, in terms of recruitment and retention of qualified and talented medical professionals. And so this is a huge area and you’re ready for it.
Walé Elegbede: Yes they are.
Lee Hawkins: As you look forward and you continue to do this, do you expect that this program could be expanded beyond Rochester?
Walé Elegbede: Yeah, that’s the intention. So how we do that. We’re in a crawl or walk run phase. Obviously, the first phase was really important for us to pilot and it has been really successful, and so we’re looking at how best we scale this. So that is something that we’re definitely looking into.
Lee Hawkins: Okay, great. Well, I look forward to hearing and reading a lot about you young ladies. I know you’re going to be successful. And please, please, please continue the great work and give back to the program as you’ve committed to.
Safa Sheikhibrahim : Thank you for having us.
Walé Elegbede: Thank you.
Lee Hawkins: And this has been the Mayo Clinic’s RISE for Equity podcast. My name is Lee Hawkins.