School’s annual King’s Feast celebrates DEI history, art and student leadership10 min read
Ann Arbor, Mich., Feb. 3, 2023 – The energy, commitment and leadership of today’s dental students, combined with the School of Dentistry’s longstanding history in supporting diversity, equity and inclusion, were among the causes for celebration Saturday during the school’s 42nd annual King’s Feast.
The annual event to honor the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is organized by the school’s chapter of the Student National Dental Association (SNDA). Current and prospective dental students, faculty, staff and alumni participate in the dinner and program. The national organization and its university chapters promote and support the academic and social environment of minority students in dental schools while advocating for diversity in the dentistry profession. The U-M chapter has about 75 members.
This year’s King’s Feast, attended by about 100 people, expanded on the theme used last month during the university’s campus-wide MLK Symposium – “(R)evolution – from Segregation to Elevation.”
In opening the evening’s wide-ranging program, faculty member and SNDA advisor Dr. Todd Ester, Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, noted Dr. King’s emphasis on health disparities across the country. Inferior access to quality healthcare among underserved groups has historically been defined – and continues to be – along racial and socioeconomic lines. “Of all the forms of inequality,” King said in 1966, “injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.”
“We’re still facing many of the challenges that we faced in Dr. King’s time,” Ester said, “but we’re thankful that we can work together toward solving them.” He said the evening’s program, organized and led by many thoughtful and talented students, offers hope that real change and progress are achievable goals.
Interim Dean Jan Hu praised current and recent members of the SNDA chapter as “a group of action, not just of words.” It has a longstanding commitment to creating a welcoming and inclusive environment, and a track record of success as an excellent support network for students throughout the school, she said. Hu noted that numerous members of the school’s chapter have held leadership positions at the national level of the organization, including Carla Jones, a current resident in Pediatric Dentistry who was national president two years ago.
Hu also praised the work of Ester, as a tireless advocate for students and a talented recruiter of students across the country who are considering dental school. She noted that he is providing leadership on DEI issues at the state and national levels, including his work last year at a DEI-related summit organized by the American Dental Education Association in Washington, D.C.
“I mention these examples of leadership because it is so important as we stay focused and take action on the many issues associated with institutional racism in our country – underserved patient populations, healthcare inequities, the need for more minority dentists and more diverse student bodies at dental schools, including ours,” Hu said.
“Our school has had that united commitment toward advancing diversity, equity and inclusion for many decades.” she said. “We were early leaders not only among dental schools, but among other units on campus. The important message tonight is that our commitment remains steadfast and unbroken. I encourage all of you here tonight to help us continue to improve our school, the profession of dentistry and scientific research by taking whatever actions you can and serving as leaders in this never-ending quest for equality on so many levels. Working together as one is how we will make the fastest progress toward the goals we all want to achieve, sooner rather than later.”
That part of the school history was highlighted in an artwork presentation by Dr. James Lee, an Ann Arbor dentist and accomplished artist who graduated from the dental school in 1990. He described why and how he painted a portrait of the late Dr. Lee Jones that will now be displayed in a new conference room in the recently renovated dental school.
Jones, who died on Sept. 6, 2021, at the age of 87, was the first African-American to have a dental practice in Ann Arbor after he graduated from the dental school in 1961. While still maintaining his practice, Jones returned to the dental school after several years to become an instructor and, in 1973, was named director of what was then called the Office of Minority Affairs. Under his leadership over the next 20-plus years, the school developed programs that increased minority enrollment and established the school as a leader in increasing diversity in dentistry. It was the forerunner of what today is the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion under the direction of Ester.
Jones was renowned for his steadfast commitment to helping students navigate the challenges of dental school, whether in academics, finances or personal issues. Numerous graduates from the many years he served the dental school have credited him with their successful careers in dentistry. James Lee was one of those students, from a single-parent household in Flint, Michigan, who is grateful that he was admitted to U-M as an undergraduate through the Comprehensive Studies and Opportunities Program. He said he is thankful also to the School of Dentistry “for investing in and maintaining a supportive learning and inclusive environment.” Lee said he is also thankful for “the SNDA and all of the dental students and administrators who came over to greet me, to offer insights, words of support and just a smile when I was sitting on the bench outside of Dr. Jones’ office waiting to see him.”
“It was my objective to paint a portrait that was reflective of the noble and regal character of this great human being that we got to know as Dr. Jones,” Lee said. “Something of permanence to commemorate his impact on individual students, the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and the dental profession at large. … Dr. King provided us with a vision. Dr. Jones was a foot soldier, a ‘boots on the ground, get it done’ kind of person. Together they raised the tide of consciousness around us all. What I love about Dr. Jones is that he not only blazed a trail, but he left a path for us to follow.”
(See a short video on Dr. Lee’s impact here.)
A second artwork presentation during the program commemorated two paintings that were gifted to the School of Dentistry by the estate of the late Detroit artist Gilda Snowden. The renowned artist’s abstract-genre paintings now hang in a prominent first-floor location in the dental school after the recent renovation.
Snowden died of heart failure in 2014 at the age of 60. She was an art professor, first at Wayne State University, from which she earned BFA, MA and MFA degrees, and later for many years at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit. During her career, Snowden created thousands of large and small works of art, including numerous self-portraits, rubbings of manhole covers in Detroit, and encaustic paintings of flowers and tropical plants. Her abstract works often featured bright colors and bold brushstrokes.
Snowden family members said the two paintings gifted to the dental school celebrate the legacy of the family patriarch, John Snowden, a 1953 graduate of the School of Dentistry. The only Black student in his class, he commuted from Detroit to the School of Dentistry in Ann Arbor during his time at the school. Family members said he was proud of his U-M connections and the important role his dental degree and profession played in the lives of his family. Family members include Snowden’s husband, William G. Boswell; her daughter, Katherine Snowden Boswell; and her sisters Donna Snowden and Myra Snowden.
In providing the history of the gift, Carrie Towns, the dental school’s Chief Development Officer, said the Alumni and Development Office identifies and procures various types of private support for the school. “Many of these are not monetary,” she said. “Our building is enriched when we are able to proudly display pieces from artists like our own Dr. James Lee and these pieces by an alum’s daughter.”
The King’s Feast program also included a musical selection by a dental school chorale, a solo vocal performance by U-M School of Music graduate Maitri White and an aspirational video presentation created by fourth-year dental student Brea Fleming and narrated by second-year student RayJ Jackson. Jackson also delivered a reading of the poem, “This Is Not a Small Voice,” by Sonia Sanchez, an award-winning American poet and professor emerita at Temple University who was active in the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements.
The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral healthcare education, research, patient care and community service. General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan. Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies. Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide. For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu. Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at email@example.com, or (734) 615-1971.