PEOPLE's Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify Black perspectives on the push for equality and justice

Kathryn Reed is an NCCPA-certified physician assistant practicing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In January, after realizing how little representation there was for non-white PA students and experiencing her own challenges as a biracial woman, Reed, 28, founded the National Society of Black Physician Assistants (NSBPA). The organization focuses on diversifying the PA student body by increasing the number of Black students, providing mentorship and support and improving health outcomes and disparities in Black communities. This is her story, as told to PEOPLE.

I sometimes feel like I'm the part of America that people like to dismiss. My mother is white, my father is Black, my sister is biracial and my brother-in-law is a white cop. We are having difficult conversations every day as a family because we have different lived experiences.

I show up to clinic with all of those lived experiences within me, and the knowledge that it's not just black and white. There's gray space and there is room for humanity, growth, compassion and understanding each other. And I feel like when I show up as my authentic self, I'm able to show people what that looks like on a humanity-driven basis.

The earliest moment that I can actually remember experiencing racism was in pre-school when I had someone say, "Your parents shouldn't be married. They should be married to their own kind."

Even though my mother was very intentional about making sure my sister and I understood both our cultural differences and what made us human, I do think that was the earliest point when I was like, "Wow, I'm somewhere in the middle. What does that mean?"

As I grew up, I became interested in medicine and potentially becoming a physician, but I didn't know any physicians that looked like me. I didn't pick anyone's brain. I didn't have one in my family that I could touch base with and learn more about the process.

Kathryn Reed, a PA who founded The National Society of Black Physician Assistants
Kathryn Reed
| Credit: Diarra Imani

It wasn't until I went to the University of Pittsburgh and majored in emergency medicine that I interacted with PAs. This was the first time in my life that I found out what a PA was, what they did and how they interacted in hospital settings. After picking their brains, I thought, "This seems like I could do this forever."

While in Pitt's PA program, I had some pretty distinct experiences that made me very much aware of the fact that racism and prejudice still exist. One of them happened when I wore my natural, curly hair to clinical one day.

It was still wet when I walked in and my preceptor said to me with a laugh, "Hey, is it raining outside, or did you mean for your hair to look like that?" I remember being very taken aback by that because there's this stigma around natural Black hair.

I wanted to be professional and represent my program the "right way," so I often wore it pulled back in ponytails or flat-ironed. When I finally did wear it natural, I got this response, so I was frustrated.

Other times, people dismiss me as a biracial woman PA. In those instances, all I can do is perform my job to the best of my ability, while treating those people as humans who have very different life experiences than I have.

At the end of the day, I hope that would make enough of an impact that they would change their tune a little bit the next encounter they have with someone who looks like me.

Kathryn Reed, a PA who founded The National Society of Black Physician Assistants
Kathryn Reed with the NSBPA's Erica Williams (left) and Helen Gaim
| Credit: Diarra Imani

After I graduated, I reached out to my two friends, who also went to PA school, and asked them, "Did you feel supported? Did you feel like you could go back to your program when people would say things to you that were microaggressions or blatantly unacceptable and prejudiced and racist?"

They both said, "No, I texted you because you were the only person that I knew had gone through this experience."

Right then, I decided we need to adjust this narrative. Because I know that there are people out there who are like us, who are going through these experiences and need that support, to both graduate and to be successful as PAs.

With the NSBPA, we provide that support through webinars, mentorship and virtual shadowing series, among other resources.

The majority of our membership, at this point, are folks who are interested in the PA profession. It makes me so happy that these folks all exist, and that they're seeking out something like the NSBPA to get this type of information and to make sure they're the best candidate they can be moving forward.

Kathryn Reed, a PA who founded The National Society of Black Physician Assistants
Kathryn Reed taking a patient's blood pressure
| Credit: Diarra Imani

I'm hopeful that the NSBPA can bring light to what a PA is, but also have conversations around what it looks like to be someone who's Black in those spaces, and acknowledge what that feels like and what that is, so that we can start to force change. You have to acknowledge that these problems exist before you can adjust them.

In the long run, my goal for myself and for the NSBPA is to continue working toward this goal of diversity, inclusion and equity, but with actionable, sustainable change, while also focusing on the humanity piece that allows you to see people for all of their good things.

I know that I was placed on this earth to be a physician assistant. And I think that that feeling, that passion, that love for the profession as a whole, continues to push me to want to make it better, to want to make every patient encounter that I have memorable, and to build that community of people who actually understand what we do and recognize our worth and value in the healthcare system.

  • As told to Joelle Goldstein

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations: