By: La-Toya Scott
In a one-on-one interview, Miami based Vascular Cardiologist, Dr. Bernard Ashby, opens up about his journey to medicine, gun violence, giving back to the community, and the movement towards equality.
I became aware of Dr. Bernard Ashby while watching the Miami local news one evening. Dr. Ashby's involvement in a growing initiative to bring awareness to the gun violence epidemic erupting in Miami instantly caught my attention. However, it was what I learned about his humble beginnings, academic pursuits, views on race, and gender inequality, during our interview that left a profound mark and enlightened perspective.
Dr. Ashby’s story reminds us that we are all capable of making a difference in the lives of countless other people. It also reminds us of the importance of giving back to the community once you’ve achieved a professional status. For the youth, these self-reflecting images of what could be is what inspires a generation to believe they can achieve their dreams. This interview exposes that Ashby is not only a man that has achieved professional, educational and career-orientated goals, but it exemplifies the importance of not ever forgetting that from which you came while remaining cognizant of the disproportionate access to resources within the society in which we are rooted.
ShadesofMelanin.com: Okay to start off what inspired you to get into medicine? Is this something that you’ve always wanted to do?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: Ummm more or less. The way I would frame it would be that I’ve always wanted to be a doctor since I was a kid. I went through what I would call black boy phases and so I had dreams of being a basketball player and a rapper. Until I realized that I couldn’t play basketball or rap.
ShadesofMelanin.com: Not even a little bit?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: Not even a little bit but, that’s unfortunately what we wanted to do, when you grow up the way we do. All the cool kids were doing it. So therefore I wanted to do it. Eventually, I came to the realization that doing medicine was the way for me to go. So that was basically my senior year in high school I got my act together to pursue medicine.
ShadesofMelanin.com: Okay so is this a passion?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: Yes very much so a passion!
ShadesofMelanin.com: Why vascular cardiology?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: Well, um it’s a bit of a long story but I’ll save you the details. When I started medicine I wanted to be a pediatric pulmonologist because I was asthmatic and that’s whom I was exposed to as a kid; pediatricians who took your asthmatics. So once in med school I decided that I was more interested in blood vessels and I wanted to be a vascular specialist.
And the only folks who did what I did were actually cardiologist but, not quite. And therefore, I kind of created my own lane where I did training in cardiology to be a heart specialist but, also did training in vascular medicine, which is a unique specialty that only analyzes and deals with blood vessel diseases, and so I kind of combined the two and became a vascular cardiologist. There’s very few of us out there.
ShadesofMelanin.com: How does a doctor become interested in gun violence?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: Well it’s not so much that I’m a doctor. I’m just a citizen. And you know the whole issue is kind of close to home. Unfortunately, I’ve lost family members due to gun violence and I’ve lost friends due to gun violence, and mentees due to gun violence. So, it’s not that I chose it, it kind of chose me. It was an issue that was brought to my doorstep and I chose to deal with it.
ShadesofMelanin.com: What is your goal with the My Future My Choice campaign?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: Great question! So the My Future My Choice Campaign is actually the product of the WPLG 10 News and they decided to make an asserted effort to bring the community together to address issues of gun violence in certain communities that seem to have more gun violence than other communities and they approached me about it. So, it landed in my lap, it wasn’t like I was the gun violence guy. They came to me, they thought I would be a great role model and I said heck ya!
Shadesofmelanin.com: What are you actually doing in Miami and the community to forward this?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: Me personally I’m involved with volunteer opportunities within the community with the Over Town Youth Center , which is a youth center dedicated to youth in the area. Basically they have little events here and there where they basically try to work with the young males, and really all the kids in the community but particularly catering to young males that live in the community.
ShadesofMelanin.com: Any specific demographic?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: Young black males. But it’s not just young black males. I mean it’s mostly young black males, but it’s whatever kid lives in that neighborhood. It's mostly young black males but whatever kids live in that area are affected by it. It disproportionately affects young black males. And then other than that I also speak at schools, community service events, and churches.
ShadesofMelanin.com: How often do you do that?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: At least two to three engagements per month.
ShadesofMelanin.com: And do they find you?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: Both ways. It always comes up organically in conversations with patients and friends, and families.
ShadesofMelanin.com: What other issues do you feel are important to bring up?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: Where do I start? So, first and foremost education I think that is the fundamental bedrock in terms of trying to uplift folks out of their circumstances. I talk about healthcare in general, and I talk about some of the inequities that exist in healthcare. I discuss criminal justice and reform, or the lack thereof and the need for it. Those are the specific issues. Really what I do is mostly help to inspire and hear what kids have to say and try to give them opportunities to express themselves and explore other areas than what they’re use to in their environment.
How I grew up the only folks that I was exposed to were football players, DJ’s, rappers, only the cool dudes in my community.
ShadesofMelanin.com: Did you have somebody in your life that inspired or impacted you?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: Ms. Barnett was a huge presence in my life. She was one of the few teachers in my life that I had who told me I was smart, and that I had potential. Most of my teachers either just didn’t notice me, or gave me negative signals actually. I had quite a few experiences like that throughout my education. It was folks like Ms. Barnett, and others, not just her, who encouraged me to do more and do better and pushed me. I was one of those kids that was clearly smart but I was just not motivated at all. So I kind of just hovered in the middle of the rode. No one really noticed me as far as teachers, and when they did it was usually in a negative light. So she changed that and put a battery in my back and made me believe in myself. In honoring her memory I try to pay it forward and try to speak to as many kids and people as possible so they can also be inspired to do better for themselves. I’m a strong believer in that it takes a village to raise a child and it also takes a village for folks like myself who come from disadvantaged backgrounds to reach their goals.
ShadesofMelanin.com: What type of disadvantaged background did you come from?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: So meaning economically, meaning education wise, meaning access to opportunities in terms of connections. It just didn’t exist. And so those avenues were created for me based on the work ethic of my parents, especially my mom who worked 16 hours a day and still found time to keep us focused on our education. And also folks just taking interest in me, folks went out of their way to say, you know what I’ll help you out, you can shadow me, or I can write you a recommendation letter. Things like that, those little things help to put me in the position that I’m in now. So I pay it forward.
ShadesofMelanin.com: What advice would you give to someone who want’s to pursue a similar path but they’re coming from a disadvantaged background?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: I think that it’s important to seek mentors and to look for programs that exist that assist you in pursuing your dreams and your goals. And like I said before there’s no need to recreate the wheel because there’s folks like myself and folks before me that have gone through the process that can be helpful in getting folks the information and the opportunities that they need in order to become a physician. From my perspective that’s important. I think that there needs to be more programs that exist out there that help folks learn the tools for success. But ultimately we can only do so much, and at some point there needs to be some policy changes to remove some of the structural barriers to success. First and foremost is education but, also criminal justice reform is very necessary. And beyond policy, community engagement to try impact kids at an earlier age. Because once you’re already at the level where you’re already in college a lot of those foundational things that need to be addressed are already a lost cause for. So, I think the best time to address a lot of those issues is at Pre-K before they even they even get into Kindergarten. A big issue with a lot of the kids who are unable to reach next level in terms of becoming a professional or a scholar is because they are limited by grammar, or they're limited by their mathematics or their lack thereof mathematical skills. And so in order to prevent that from being a problem later on you just have to get to them early on.
ShadesofMelanin.com: So, as you know, we are a website where the demographic we cater to are people of color. I want to ask you as a professional of color what does it mean being a black man in America? Did you have to work twice as hard to get half as much?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: For me what I’ve noticed, as I’ve become more educated and I’ve gone through multiple institutions and training programs, there seems to be an infrastructure in place to help certain demographics excel. Unfortunately, that really doesn’t exist for African Americans. Meaning that there's individuals of Indian descent who have programs and they work with one another, there’s folks in Jewish communities that work together for example through their synagogues, or their parents or connections, there’s Caucasians…you know there’s a lot of different groups. Fortunately, for they don't have to recreate the wheel. Meaning that folks can learn from their experiences and propagate and or at least pass that information down to the younger generation so that they can learn from those mistakes or successes and therefore, do better than the generation before them. And for many folks like myself we just didn’t have that. It just didn’t exist. So we, myself included, have to spend a lot of time recreating the wheel: Learning how to study things, having to learn about what prerequisites it takes to become a physician, doing your own financial aid paper work, or your own application paperwork. Obviously, we’re doing it for the first time, whereas other folks are being helped. Basically, we had to do it on our own, while folks helped other folks. They had their material proofread so that when they had their application make it to the desk of whatever program they were applying to they were in a lot better position than we were because we had to recreate the wheel. That’s just an example. It’s not to say there was blatant racism it’s just that the disadvantages were clear and apparent and it was, I feel, a much more difficult road for me to travel than some of my counterparts.
ShadesofMelanin.com: I follow you on social media, and took note of a post you made in reference to the two recent shootings of Alton Sterling then soon after Philando Castille. How did what happen touch you in a way that you felt inclined to speak out?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: Well, for me as an African American male growing up in the United States I felt that my perspective was unique on this situation and the shootings that happened were in particular interest to me, and were particularly salient to me because of my own experiences. From the day I started driving, that was when I was exposed to frequent interaction with the criminal justice system, being pulled over a lot, having guns drawn on me for unclear reasons, and having siblings who were in and out of jail and who I felt were unfairly prosecuted made me particularly passionate about that subject. And so I felt that I needed to speak up about it so that my perspective could be heard.
This may be a little controversial but folks who are in places of privilege rarely realize that and so it’s important when you’re trying to advocate for a cause always question your own biases and how you perpetuate inequities yourself. For example, when it comes to racial inequalities, that do exist, it’s important not to neglect gender inequalities. Meaning that we as males, especially black males, have a relatively privileged position when it comes to Black females. Society has a structure in place that allows males advantages over women. If you don’t realize that then you’re a part of the problem, at least I think so. You don’t want to fight for racial inequality, and perpetuate gender inequality at the same time.
ShadesofMelanin.com: So did you agree a lot with what Jesse Williams said at the B.E.T Awards?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: Yea, I did, yes. If you have an effective message it has to be consistent.
A good friend of mine, who’s actually a Professor at Georgetown, wrote a book describing some of the problems with the civil rights movement, for instance, the fact that women were regulated to non-executive roles in that movement.
This perpetuation is what makes America structurally unequal. So it’s important when you’re fighting for inequality in one area to not perpetuate in another. And I think we do that a lot.
And I just want to give a particular shout out to…and maybe I’m pandering a little bit, but to Black women. I think that Black women as a demographic are under-appreciated especially when it comes to the fight for equality. I think that their voices should be heard, they should be on par, and again as we look towards establishing justice and equality in terms of race that we not forget that there are other inequalities that exist especially when it comes to gender. And unfortunately folks that are fighting for racial equality are perpetuating a lot of that inequality as well. At the end of the day right is right.
The reason why I brought it up was that we get very angry when folks don’t really understand what Black Lives Matter means, and people respond with All Lives Matter because they just don’t understand they’re in a place of privilege and therefore, they don’t really realize what’s going on. It’s not that important to them because their kids aren’t affected by it. The same holds true when women are saying we should get paid the same, or I should get paid maternity leave, there are certain things as in terms of access. You look at certain areas for example, in Fortune 500 companies there are few women who are CEO's, or even in certain areas medicine it’s a male dominated culture where women are being boxed out. But the point is someone would be a more effective messenger if they realized their own privilege and therefore, acknowledged folks when they tell you there are inequalities. Question your own biases and realize your own privilege.
ShadesofMelanin.com: So when did you realize your privilege as a male?
Dr. Bernard Ashby: Well, unfortunately, it wasn’t that long ago. I would like to say that it was a long time ago but probably within the past few years. I’ve always realized that there was gender inequality but it just didn’t really resonate with me. It was one of the many things that was going on but it was never comprehended or appreciated until it was framed in the same way that I am framing it to you. Where it’s something that systematically disenfranchises a group of people and therefore, if it disenfranchise anyone as an American it should be an issue to me and of high importance. It’s important to me because I have to be consistent and so inequality in any form is unacceptable.