Medical student activist Oluwatoni “Toni” Okuboyejo helped organize Jefferson’s White Coats for Black Lives Demonstration.
Oluwatoni “Toni” Okuboyejo moved from Nigeria to the United States in 2014, around the time of the high-profile deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by the hands of police officers.
“I never fully understood what it meant to be black in America until then,” says the third-year Sidney Kimmel Medical College student. “I was confused. I was angry.”
Garner’s haunting dying words of “I can’t breathe” served as one of the catalysts to mobilize the Black Lives Matter movement and reverberated this year with the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Protests mounted around the world, calling for action and widespread police reform.
“It was everyone’s breaking point,” Okuboyejo says, “including mine.”
With the help of Jefferson internal medicine residents Drs. Danielle Verghese and Rukaiya Bashir and Dr. Traci Trice, assistant dean for diversity and student diversity programs, Okuboyejo organized and spoke at the White Coats for Black Lives demonstration on June 5. Hundreds of Jefferson students, residents, physicians, faculty and staff attended the protest at Lubert Plaza.
She admits the turnout surprised her, especially with the pandemic (“I thought it would just be 10 people,” Okuboyejo says), and loved to see people of many races unite in solidarity for the black community.
“However, this is just one step to the solution,” Okuboyejo says. “I hope those who came out will continue their activism and to actively oppose racism. In medicine, systemic racism is heavily embedded in the system.”
For example, she describes the story of the decades-long Tuskegee Study, where researchers knowingly withheld treatment for black men with syphilis.
Okuboyejo also recounts her own experience with a microaggression in her first few weeks of med school. In a small discussion group, one of her white professors asked her, “How does your family deal with the aftermath of slavery?”
“She assumed that I was African American,” Okuboyejo says. “Even if I was, you just don’t ask someone about slavery. I brushed it off then, but that was a very uncomfortable situation for me. If it happened now, I would have a whole conversation with her.”
I hope those who came out will continue their activism and to actively oppose racism.
Her leadership qualities have grown at Jefferson thanks, in part, to working with her mentor Dr. Trice, she says. Okuboyejo now serves as an associate regional director of the Student National Medical Association—an organization that supports underrepresented minority medical students—and plans to work in primary care, mainly family medicine.
“There’s a longevity to the relationship,” she says of her future career path. “You’re not just seeing them once or twice. You’re the pillar in their care, and medicine is a great way to educate patients.”