Monica Vela, MD'93, wins UChicago Diversity Leadership Award

Originally posted on UChicago News.

Each year the University of Chicago recognizes three members of the UChicago community for their contributions to diversity and inclusion at the University and in the broader community. The Diversity Leadership Council, along with the University of Chicago Alumni Board, selects a University faculty member, alumnus and staff member who have provided leadership in advancing social justice and equity in our society.

This year’s recipients are Prof. Monica Vela, MD’93; Sybil Jordan Hampton, MST’68; and Ron OJ Parson. They received their awards at a Jan. 15 reception on campus and were honored during the UChicago community’s annual Martin Luther King. Jr. commemoration at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

“The University of Chicago was built on a conceptual foundation of inclusion, having always been open to scholarship of both men and women, and those of all cultures, religions, races and ethnicities. Making these conceptual foundations fully manifest has been and remains ongoing work,” President Robert J. Zimmer said. “Diversity, and the varied perspectives that it brings, is critical to the quality of inquiry that drives our search for understanding across the natural, social and human worlds; is critical to our particular form of rigorous education embedded in such inquiry; and is essential for the nature of impact of our research and education.”

As professor of medicine and associate dean for multicultural affairs at the Pritzker School of Medicine, Monica Vela, MD’93, created a first-of-its-kind Health Care Disparities in America course, which is required for all first-year medical students and promotes health care equity and advocacy. Vela regularly travels across the country teaching educators how to create similar courses at their institutions based on local health disparities data. She also serves as associate vice chair for diversity in the Department of Medicine, advocating for the recruitment, retention, scholarship, leadership and mentorship of underrepresented students, residents, fellows and faculty.

The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she completed medical school at Pritzker and residency at the University’s Internal Medicine Residency program. Vela’s research focuses on medical education on health disparities, care of patient populations with limited English proficiency and increasing diversity within the medical profession. She maintains a clinical practice in the Primary Care group and mentors junior faculty whose research addresses health care disparities on Chicago’s South Side. Vela has directed three pipeline programs supporting the promotion of minority students into scientific research and the health profession. 

In 2016, she was appointed director of the Bowman Society, which brings together members of the University community for mentorship and scholarly discussion on health care issues affecting minority populations. Vela also convened the inaugural Black Men in Medicine Forum in 2016 and 2017, and the inaugural Black and Latina Women in Medicine Forum in 2017 and 2018. She has received numerous awards that reflect her dedication to inclusion and equity, including the Senior Distinguished Leader Award in Diversity and Inclusion in the Department of Medicine in 2017.

Below are excerpts from Dr. Vela's acceptance speech.

It is humbling to stand before you and read from Reverend Dr. King’s last Southern Christian Leadership Conference presidential address. He asked and answered, “Now in order to answer the question, 'Where do we go from here?' we must first honestly recognize where we are now.” I will read now excerpts from a poem I wrote last year to my deceased father, an Mexican immigrant and later citizen of this country on a particular day when I felt my own identity threatened.

And now I ask:

Where are we now with our talk of border walls

and bathroom stalls? 

Where are we now with hate speech

and racist tweets? 

Where are we now with water rights

and fire fights?

Where are we now with detainees

and slave and camp descendants? 

Where are we now with civil rights and equity?

And I go back to Revered Dr. King who asked and answered, “THIS is where we are. Where do we go from here? First we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values.” 

And so I say today,

With our spirits filled with hope,

With bodies that labor and love,

With my children and your children struggling to be who they are,

whether they call themselves

he or she or they. 

You and I

have to believe that they and we

will continue to shine

brighter than the rays

on the brightest days cast by the sun.

And that no border walls or bathroom stalls

will hold us. 

We have to believe that love and hope

will not be forsaken

and that we must and that we will

continue to assert our dignity and worth.