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The Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Blog Conversations That Matter with Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, MD, MEd, MPPM

In “Conversations That Matter,” a blog and audio series, Senior Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leon McCrea II, MD, MPH, interviews members of the College of Medicine community about their lives, their journeys in medicine, and their thoughts on diversity in medical practice and education.

In the interview below, Dr. McCrea talks with Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, MD, MEd, MPPM, a professor in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Drexel University College of Medicine. As the chief clinical diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Allegheny Health Network, a College of Medicine regional medical campus, she helps create an inclusive work environment and ensure that all patients receive equitable care.

Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, MD, MEd, MPPM

Larkins-Pettigrew’s clinical experience includes time as a nurse and as a global health strategist. She has also served as a naval officer. Read on to get to know Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew and learn even more about her life and career (including her global health outreach) in the latest episode of the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion's podcast "Conversations That Matter."

Note: the conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Leon McCrea, MD, MPH (LM): Before we get into the weeds of all the wonderful things that you've done, can you tell me a little bit about what motivated you to pursue this fabulous career you developed in medicine?

Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, MD, MEd, MPPM (MLP): That's always an interesting question to me. Because it's not about how I got here and what I'm doing now – it really is about who I am and how I have internalized the passion and the purpose of what I do.

I was born right outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a little place called Uniontown, but I lived in a little place called Lemont Furnace. It was a real little town down in the hollows here in Pennsylvania, right over the border of West Virginia. My father was a coal miner, my mother was a homemaker. We really lived in a place where we had lots of fun chasing our chickens and eating rabbit and all those things that, most people today would say, ‘What were you doing?’ But it was such a way of family and really making sure that we were all wholesome – that we were taking care of one another, that we had shelter, we had food and that we shared with our community.

I think that's where it started, where I began to feel that no matter what I did in life, it had to be about giving back to others. It had to be about knowing myself well enough that I was able to step beyond myself in order to be not only an expert in what I did, but to really try to be significant in the lives of those folks I was taking care of.

I can say honestly, I feel like I really have the pleasure of living my best life. Not only personally, but also professionally, with the ability to have the reigns in a leadership position that really will shape and change the lives of people at the leadership level and the student level. I really am absolutely pleased to be here and to be doing what I'm doing now.

LM: I want to talk about your experience taking diversity and inclusion work and bringing it to your campus, to your location, to what it is that you're trying to spread and to create. We've been living through a pandemic. We had a forward-facing camera highlight atrocities that have been happening to Black and Brown communities for generations with George Floyd and other things. I feel like because we were silent, because we had the pandemic, it allowed us to have enough pause to actually give attention to some of those things. And now I wonder as we're getting back to life again, how are we going to make sure that these challenges stay at the forefront in our line of work?

MLP: It really is a matter of our leaders being true leaders and really taking the blinders off, being transparent and honest about how we got here. The pandemic, as you said, has uncovered a lot of the scabs that we've lived with for many, many years. And George Floyd, I've lived through several George Floyds in my own life. And George Floyd's death was horrendous and another tipping point in our country. We have had several tipping points and several opportunities to change the trajectory of who we want to be as a country, as a people. And we've failed.

And we say, ‘Oh my God, we should do something about this,’ and then we go back to doing the same old, same old. We’re not really moving forward. We need to not only acknowledge that we are in a country based on structural racism, but also embrace it and accept it. Acknowledging is one thing, accepting it is another. Because once you accept something, then you begin to say, ‘I'm going to accept it is and leave it as it is,’ or ‘I'm going to accept, and I'm going to make some changes.’ Leaders across the country are now faced with understanding how we got here, acknowledging that this a place we don't want to be, and then accepting the fact that they have to be intentional about making changes.

The word intentional is one that I use a lot, because I think that it's about not only sitting down and saying, ‘I'm philosophically in this space,’ but that I am intentionally dedicating my resources, my energy, my time, to make sure that we have positive outcomes, in a strategic way.

I have the pleasure, of course, of being part of an organization that has made that statement and has really put resources behind it to say that we are strategically and intentionally going to change our environment. We're going to change who we are. So, we can't do anything outside of our health care system, right? But we sure can do a whole lot about what we're doing internally and how we are changing policies to make sure that we are inclusive, that people can show up as their authentic selves, and how we can have uncomfortable conversations.

LM: Yes!

MLP: And move forward to make sure that we're doing things to make sure those conversations become much more comfortable because we have seen productivity, and we've seen positive outcomes. So, there's a lot packed into that.

LM: In your new role with Allegheny Health Network, what’s the next challenge you want to tackle? Because the one thing I know about you is that you never stay still. You mentioned reaching this pseudo mountain top, right? But I only say ‘pseudo,’ because I know you're always inventing, thinking, creating. What’s on your professional horizon?

MLP: Having a really big team that I'm building. I have begun to focus internally. What can we do internally as an institution? Where can we find those places where the “-isms” are raising their ugly heads? I think all institutions need to do that.

I’ve developed a model in equity transformation for organizations, whether they be clinical or business. That is what I'm using at Allegheny Health Network. Based on these pillars I've created, we are looking at education not only to make sure that leaders are making decisions and governing through a social justice lens, but educating our entire system to think about inclusivity, anti-racism and what we need to know about how we got here and how we could move forward.

Any job can be visionary and be intentional, but not without the support of leaders who are willing to say, ‘This is something that we should do. This is something that must be done, and it’s happening.’

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