By Teresa Hairston, Manager Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DIB)

Graphic that reads: 2021 Black History Month. "Delta Dental is deepening our commitment to diversity, inclusion and belonging. One of the ways we are doing that is by elevating Black, Indigenous and People of Color voices and stories both internally and externally." - Teresa Hairston, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Manager.

Carter G. Woodson, a noted historian, created Black History Week in 1926 to observe and celebrate the contributions made by people of African descent to the United States. The second week of February was initially set aside for this celebration because it coincided with the birthdays of abolitionist/editor Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln, who both championed the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery. In 1976, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History expanded the celebration to the entire month, which was supported by Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. In 1986, Congress officially designated February as Black History Month.  

Delta Dental is deepening our commitment to Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. One of the ways we are doing that is by elevating Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) voices and stories both internally and externally. For Black History month, we are exploring the theme “Where do we go from here?”, which is the title of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last book on building actions to achieve greater equality. Given the events of the past year, it feels like an especially relevant question.

To kick off these efforts, we are commemorating four African American Dental Heroes: Dr. Ida Gray Rollins, Dr. George Franklin Grant, Dr. William Thomas Jefferson, and Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman. These four trailblazers entered the dental profession in the latter part of the 19th century – a time where Blacks were openly deterred from pursuing such careers. Each of these heroes made significant contributions to the practice of dentistry in America through the sheer tenacity to achieve their goals and practice their chosen profession. For our employees, we are hosting a webinar with African American women dentists. They will share their personal journeys and comment on how these dental heroes influenced their lives. They will also discuss the importance of speaking truth to power and challenging the status quo so that all voices can be considered and heard.

As an exploration of our theme, we will ask them about oral health disparities in the United States that exist for many racial and ethnic groups by socioeconomic status, gender, age, and geographic location. Although there are some improvements, the numbers are still concerning. Overall, non-Hispanic Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians and Alaska Natives generally have the poorest oral health of any racial and ethnic groups in the United States, as illustrated by these key stats from the Centers of Disease Control:

  • The greatest racial and ethnic disparity among children aged 3–5 years and aged 6–9 years is the prevalence in tooth decay. Hispanic and Black children have consistently higher rates of caries (the disease that causes tooth decay) and untreated decay than their white peers.
  • Blacks, non-Hispanics, and Mexican Americans aged 35–44 years experience untreated tooth decay nearly twice as much as non-Hispanic whites.
  • The 5–year survival rate for oral pharyngeal (throat) cancers is 35 percent for Black men and 61 percent for whites.

Internally, we hope these discussions will lead to actions that can be taken to provide more targeted outreach to providers and customers on ways to close the gaps in oral healthcare. We plan to do listening sessions with members of our Inclusion Communities that represent our diverse customer base to hear and incorporate their ideas on ways to better serve those affected by these disparities. These are ways we can plot the course for “where do we go from here” and leverage the collective voices and talents of our Delta Dental employees.   

Externally, we are working to address health disparities through our Delta Dental Community Care Foundation partners by increasing access to care for vulnerable populations and providing scholarships for BIPOC dental students. We’re committed to treating racism as a social determinant of health, and we have crucial questions to ask ourselves about our grantmaking that also fit into the theme of where do we go from here? How do we ensure that we aren’t inadvertently contributing to systemic racism and inequity? Grappling with these questions is a big part of the DIB work that I am leading for this organization, and I look forward to sharing what we learn along the way in future posts to this blog.