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Diverse Voices In Dentistry: Q&A with Tameka S. Lee, Empower RDH

Posted October 13, 2021

Tonya Lanthier, RDH
Tameka Lee, RDH
Tameka Lee, BSDH, RDH

Our Diverse Voices series continues with someone whose mission to inspire and empower hygienists is one that is near and dear to my heart. Fellow RDH and founder of Empower RDH, Tameka Lee, BSDH, RDH inspires leadership by helping dental clinicians be more productive and more fulfilled so they can provide the best patient care and experience. She encourages RDH’s and dental clinicians to maintain positivity and keep their passion for dentistry alive. Here is Tameka’s story and experience. 

Tonya: Hi Tameka! Thank you so much for sharing your story with me and the dental community. I love the name and mission of your company. Empowering the people around us is so important and can be even more powerful than leading sometimes. Who or what empowered you and inspired you to go into the dental field? 

Tameka: Hello, and thank you for creating the space for this conversation! I grew up in a single-parent household. My family’s income was just above the poverty line, so we did not qualify for government-funded healthcare. However, we could not afford health coverage. Dental care is not a priority when you are barely getting by. I was embarrassed by the spacing in between my teeth. Every time I laughed or smiled, I reflectively covered my smile. I had my first dental visit at 19 years old and was amazed that I did not have any cavities. I went on to study dental hygiene and to help people achieve beautiful, healthy smiles. It was not until in my first year of dental hygiene school that I was able to receive orthodontic treatment. I am now an advocate for increased access to quality oral healthcare.

Tonya: Thank you for sharing that. I also grew up in a single family household, and I can especially relate to some of the financial challenges you mention. I know that many haven’t had the access they need to dental care, so it hasn’t been modeled as part of the norm in some cultures. I hope we can change that. 
What challenges, opportunities, and steps (big or small) do you think we can take to attract more diverse candidates to the dental schools and the dental industry? 

Tameka: The first step is having an open dialogue and recognizing there is a need for diversity in dentistry. When patients seek healthcare providers, they want to know that they will understand their specific healthcare needs. When patients don’t see dental providers that look like them, they may feel that the provider can’t relate to their circumstances and the challenges they may be facing. I am not saying that every patient needs to see a provider of the same race or ethnicity. It is also about cultural competence and the ability of providers to respond to the appreciation of patients whose cultures and values may be very different from their own. 

Tonya: I agree. I think more patience and empathy is needed for patients who haven’t been as exposed to dentistry and preventative care. You used the term “cultural competence.” That’s interesting. Can you elaborate more on that? 

Tameka: I think that a mentorship program would be successful if all groups were involved. Cultural competence can be achieved by working alongside people from different cultural backgrounds. One challenge is getting people who are not directly affected to care and be a part of the solution. There must be more collaboration and partnerships.

Tonya: Where do we start? Who, in the dental industry, do you think would have the most success starting a mentorship program in more diverse communities? 

Tameka: I don’t have all the answers. I do remember not learning about dental hygiene until I started prerequisites in my freshman year of college. I would say a partnership with dental schools and local schools in the neighboring communities. Students must be exposed to the field of dentistry at an early age. I do a small part by volunteering in underserved communities and participating in career day in metro Atlanta schools. In addition, dental schools could do more to recruit underrepresented groups. It’s not just about the numbers but truly embracing diversity in dentistry!

Tonya: Yes! The first step is to get people talking about the things we can do to create change. In that spirit, where would you start the conversation? 

Tameka: Again, dental schools and dental hygiene programs should increase partnerships with local schools to serve and mentor underserved communities. An emphasis should be placed on mentoring new graduates from dental programs. Current leaders and alumni reaching back to mentor. 

Tonya: My team and I recently launched SmartView, a blind screening app that temporarily hides a candidate’s name and photo during the initial screening process so that hiring managers can focus on what matters most––skills, candidate personality traits and that sort of thing. It’s a small step, and we still have much work to do, but we know we have to start somewhere. Having these conversations with leaders like you is a part of that process.

Tameka: We do, but it’s a good start. I appreciate what you’re doing –– anything that helps level the playing field. It’s challenging. I did not wear my hair in its natural curly state to interviews for fear of not being perceived as professional. I always had my hair professionally flat ironed as part of the preparation for an interview until I had an impromptu interview and did not have time to have my hair flat ironed. I wore a business suit and my natural curls to the interview and landed the role.  How I wear my hair if it is neat does not interfere with my ability to do my job. As a woman of color, changing my hair is a way of expressing myself. Having to answer questions or explain hair choices can be frustrating at times. Curiosity over our physical and cultural differences is a good thing. It’s how we go about asking and educating ourselves about it that matters. We need to be sensitive and mindful to how we approach that curiosity, no matter ethnicity or culture.

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