From left to right - Talita Osegura, Kiya Clary, Alexis Cobbins, Daphina Melbourne, Dr. Monica McLemore, Melissa Harris-Perry, Shanell Williams, Dr. Lamisha Hill and Norlissa Cooper. Photo credit: Alexis Cobbins

Dear PTBi Community,

On July 1, I officially start my role as Executive Director of PTBi. As one of only eight percent of Black staff within UCSF, I’m likely one of a small number here in a leadership position. The percentages get even smaller when you look at other categories at our institution, with only five percent of Black postdocs, students and trainees and only three percent Black faculty. Unfortunately, these tiny percentages are the norm for most academic research organizations outside of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and most large organizations, whatever the sector.

So, it’s no wonder that when I shared the news of my new role on social media, one of my former mentees commented, “Thanks for showing me that I can do it too.” I was so flattered, but it also angers and saddens me that this is something we have to prove on a daily basis no matter how qualified we are.

This comment also got me thinking about the Black women who showed me I could do it too, even when many in our society have repeatedly told us and continue to tell us - through micro-aggressions and blatant violence - that we can’t. I also thought of the Black women that came to UCSF and PTBi before me who have shown our institution that, yes, Black women and Black people can do it too.

They are trailblazers, succeeding even when all factors are against them, helping to knock down the walls of ivory towers and create positive change from the inside out, proving that it’s racism, not race, that causes the disparities in our health outcomes, and advocating for more opportunities for other Black women and people to join them and follow in their footsteps. They took and continue to take head-on widespread racism and anti-Blackness, misogyny, and many other obstacles constructed by society that show us we are unwelcome faces in academia, in leadership and tragically in our own country.

They are the reason I am here today. I am a product of their combined experiences, hardships, and accomplishments. They are the essence of strength, resilience, and Black Girl Magic.

These women include all the Black women on our Community Advisory Board (CAB) and all of the Black women at PTBi and UCSF. In particular, I’d like to recognize Black women who were instrumental in my journey to PTBi: Dr. Monica McLemore for presenting PTBi to my team at Black Infant Health (BIH), Dr. Karen Scott and Dr. Brittany Chambers for showing me that Black women are killing it in research, Daphina Melbourne who worked alongside me at BIH and has always supported me along the way, Shanell Williams and Kimberley Coleman-Phox who guided all of us as CAB members to continue to fight for what’s right and hold PTBi accountable, Dr. Zea Malawa who encouraged me to apply for the Associate Director role and who educated all of us at PTBi to strive to do better through her racism as a root cause framework, to Brianne Taylor, Jaontra Henderson, Loren Newman, Jazmin Fontenot, Kiya Clary and our PTBi fellows who inspire me about what the future holds, and to Judy Young, who welcomed me into the UCSF community and continues to uplift me and think of me for partnership projects. And, although she is not at UCSF, I would be remiss to not mention my long-term mentor Jenee Johnson who contributed to my professional development along the way and taught me how to make things happen instead of letting them happen to me.

Thank you to all of you for showing me and the world that we can and we will continue to thrive in our careers and fight for change in our organizations. I will continue to honor the work of those that came before me and pay it forward so that more Black women and people have the opportunity to come to PTBi and UCSF and exceed all expectations.

While we’ve seen many organizations making grand statements of support for BLM, Black people on social media have rightfully responded with “Great, can you tell me how many Black executives serve on your leadership team (and that aren’t in charge of diversity and inclusion)?”

Because what we are looking for is not performative gestures of bended knees, BLM hashtags or Black boxes. We’re looking for real change and that means hiring more Black people, building pipelines to ensure more Black people can study and work at large organizations, appointing more people that look like me to leadership positions, particularly in health and medicine because it’s Black people who continue to experience the worst health outcomes. And, it is only by improving outcomes for us that we can really improve outcomes for all races.

I hope that my appointment to a leadership role is one of many that we’ll see as more organizations begin to dismantle racism in their workplaces.

I started my journey at PTBi as a community advisory board (CAB) member and today I’m co-leading the initiative. While I’m fully qualified for the role with my professional experience, I’d like to think that my life experience as a Black mom who had a preterm birth is even more important. I know what it’s like to be refused pain medications during your child’s birth or denied information about progesterone treatments because of the color of my skin, because the non-Black providers think I don’t experience pain the same, or that I’m not smart or educated enough to understand medical science, despite being armed with a Masters of Social Work and more than a decade of experience running a maternal and child health program.

As the stories and images of racist violence continue to fill our news and social media feeds every minute of the day, I feel fortunate to be part of an initiative that recognizes the importance of the Black experience, Black leadership and that looking through public health and medical research (or any subject matter) through a Black lens will give you a clearer sense of where inequities and injustices lie in any situation or organization.

For a better picture of how racism and anti-Blackness plays out in the world of academia, I highly encourage everyone to follow #Blackintheivory on Twitter. Even if we don’t reach true equity in our generation, the progress we make today will make it that much easier for the generations that follow. 

Thank you to all of my Black sisters and to all of our co-conspirators who have joined our movement for being the change we want to see. Because of you, we can.

Alexis Cobbins, 
Executive Director
California Preterm Birth Initiative