When it comes to summing up the current state of the physical therapy profession's efforts to expand diversity, equity, and inclusion in its ranks, Charlene Portee, PT, PhD, isn't one to sugarcoat things.
"Our profession has been slow in traveling the road toward diversity, equity, and inclusion," Portee said. "We cannot go back in time to change our past, but we can certainly change our future."
Portee's frank assessment came during her 2021 Lynda D. Woodruff Lecture on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Physical Therapy Profession delivered virtually on June 17. Her lecture, titled "The Road to Success: Are We Ready to Change Direction?" was part appreciation of the profession's early DEI efforts, part assessment of where things stand now, and part challenge to the profession to take actions that Portee believes could effect real change. The entire lecture, followed by a panel discussion, is available for free viewing.
Portee, dean of the College of Health Sciences, interim director of the Physical Therapy Department, and a tenured associate professor in the Physical Therapy Program at Alabama State University, is the second lecturer for the program that launched in 2020. The lecture series was created in honor and memory of Woodruff, a physical therapy leader and advocate, and longtime APTA member. Sponsored by APTA, the American Council of Academic Physical Therapy, American Academy of Physical Therapy, APTA Academy of Education, National Association of Black Physical Therapists, and Physical Therapy Learning Institute , the event also recognizes Juneteenth.
After her lecture, Portee joined in a panel discussion that took a deeper dive into the issues raised during the lecture. The conversation was moderated by Kai Kennedy, PT, DPT, and in addition to Portee, included Tiffany Adams, PT, DPT, MBA; Leon Anderson III, PT, MOMT; and Rachel Herron, PT, DPT.
The lecture began with a look back at what had been accomplished — an exercise that Portee characterized as akin to the Akan principle "Sankofa," which embodies the idea of looking to the past to build a strong future.
Her recounting of earlier efforts, many of which began in the early 1980s, served as a tribute to the lecture's namesake, who was seemingly involved in nearly every important advance, including the development of APTA's minority scholarship fund, as well as the establishment of the American Academy of Physical Therapy and the Physical Therapy Learning Institute.
Portee described a time of growth and innovation, with Woodruff and others experimenting with new ways to increase the number of physical therapy students and educators from underrepresented minorities. But then, she said, competing priorities made the road ahead less clear, sometimes leading to divergent paths that advanced only a little or disappeared completely.
That road can be made clear again, Portee believes, but doing so will require resolve throughout the profession.
"The diverged roads have severely restricted our progress toward DEI in physical therapy," Portee said. "We must change how we think and change what we do. And that starts at the top."
Being Brave and Honest
There is a path forward, according to Portee, but it's going to require hard work and a willingness to move from talk into action.
Portee asserted that to effect the changes that need to happen, the profession needs to place the concept of equity before diversity and inclusion, and must do more than simply acknowledge that racism exists — or worse, claim that color is a non-issue.
"Some say they are color blind," Portee said. "There is nothing wrong with color. I want you to see the difference that makes me different. If you look at me and do not see color, you do not see me."
Similarly for Portee, equity must be addressed head-on — and from the very top.
"Increasing racial equity begins with educating our leadership and taking the necessary steps to ensure racial and ethnic diversity in physical therapy leadership positions," she said.
The inclusion that can arise from genuine efforts around equity and a proactive approach to racism opens up possibilities for inclusion that can be made even more powerful through a commitment to allyship among the major organizations within the profession, including APTA, AAPT, PTLI, and NABPT. Portee said that "being a non-racist is not good enough; we must be anti-racist."
Near the end of her presentation, Portee offered six "challenges" for the profession and its leading organizations, including APTA, AAPT, PTLI, and NABPT. The challenges were based on a clear, shared recognition of the need for change, and a willingness to take action in areas ranging from more widespread education in cultural competence to fundraising efforts to increase the number of faculty and students from underrepresented minorities in physical therapy education programs.
"The road to DEI will not be easy," Portee said. "But it is our professional duty and social responsibility to take this journey. The next road we take will have long-term, lasting effects on our profession, so we must be careful of the path we now take. The road that was willingly and passionately taken by visionaries like Dr. Woodruff provides a map for us to follow."