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September 01, 2020

‘How long? Not long’: Longtime diversity champion still optimistic for change

Dr. Evan M. Morse talks about his activism inside and outside of the profession
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In 2005, the AVMA commissioned its Diversity Task Force with the hope that it would “foster cultural competence in veterinary leadership and the delivery of veterinary services,” according to a JAVMA News article. The establishment of the task force followed on the heels of the AVMA’s adoption of a diversity policy. The task force later developed a report, “Unity Through Diversity” (PDF).

One of the members of the task force was Dr. Evan M. Morse, owner of the Warrensville Animal Center in Cleveland, and co-founder of the Free Animal Clinic Team, a consortium of veterinarians providing free animal care to in-need pet owners throughout greater Cleveland.

Some people reading this may not understand what it feels like or comprehend how I can be in a state of continuous alert. Some see me as a successful veterinarian who has not been affected much by racism. Letters behind your name—DVM, MD, JD—do not protect you, when all another person sees is a Black man.

Dr. Evan M. Morse

Over several decades, Dr. Morse has been actively involved in efforts to address diversity and inclusion in the veterinary profession. He moderated and helped organize the annual AVMA Diversity Symposium during the AVMA Convention from 2005-13. In 2011, Dr. Morse received the AVMA President’s Award for his efforts. He also holds a master’s in psychology with a specialization in diversity management from Cleveland State University.

JAVMA News spoke with Dr. Morse about what it was like as a Black person growing up in Richmond, Virginia, primary capital of the Confederacy; how he felt attending Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine during the civil rights movement; and what he has observed over the years in the veterinary profession. The answers have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. You became an activist at a young age. Do you still consider yourself one?

Dr. Morse
Dr. Evan M. Morse

A. Growing up in Richmond, I was inspired by hometown figures such as Arthur Ashe, the famous tennis champion who was also a schoolmate, and Spottswood Robinson, a civil rights lawyer for the landmark case Brown vs. the Board of Education. During high school, I participated in sit-ins and department store picketing. I also helped spearhead the integration of Virginia’s science and mathematics academic conferences.

After high school, while studying veterinary medicine at Tuskegee Institute, I participated in voter registration drives, political activism on campus, and protests on the shooting of Sammy Younge, Jr. And there was one event I participated in that I’ll never forget: The historic Selma March in 1965, when I was 20 years old. And yes, I still consider myself an activist and am no less committed and engaged in the struggle for equal access and justice for all. The march isn’t over.

Q. Have you experienced microaggressions or direct racist comments from clients or colleagues? Have you felt physically threatened?

A. I took my first job at the All Animal Clinic in Collinwood, Ohio, a neighborhood on Cleveland’s East Side. When I left work every night and walked to my car, people in the neighborhood would yell the N-word at me. Every night. I had to steel myself and prepare to hear it. I owned an Austin Healey sports car, and those same neighborhood folks sliced my convertible top and egged my car. That was in the late ’60s.

In those days at the All Animal Clinic, the receptionist would take the client and the animal into the examination room to wait for the veterinarian. Sometimes, when I walked in and the client saw that I was Black, they would grab the dog or cat and leave horrified.

Another event I’ll never forget is when I walked into the examination room and there was a mynah bird on the table that uttered the N-word three times. Birds don’t teach words to themselves!

When I first came to Cleveland, it took me a while to become a member of the Cleveland Academy of Veterinary Medicine. Then, 20 years later, I became the president of that organization. We were all sitting around in the meeting room after my first session as president, and I heard someone say from across the room, “The (N-word) done took over the farm.” Here I was the president, and someone was again calling me the N-word, 20 years later. I will never forget that experience.

Fortunately, those kinds of experiences of racism have happened less frequently as time goes on.

Q. When considering a career in veterinary medicine, did it put you off that the profession was overwhelmingly white?

A. It did not.

When I was in high school, I was given my start by a white veterinarian. In fact, I had never seen an African American veterinarian until I enrolled at Tuskegee Institute. Dr. Arthur Yale Kavit owned an animal hospital in Richmond, Virginia. Miraculously, I was hired by him to serve as the night attendant. I worked at the animal hospital after school, spent the night there, and went back to school in the morning. Those amazing experiences at that animal hospital were my first encounters with the veterinary profession. The second white veterinarian who opened a door for me was Dr. David Rickards, a practitioner from London, who established a veterinary practice in 1953 in Cleveland. My first position out of veterinary college was working for him. He gave me a solid foundation in all aspects of the profession.

These many years later, I often note that the waiting room of my animal hospital is now a mosaic of races. I find great delight in seeing so many people of different backgrounds coming to me for care of their beloved animals. I see we have come a long way.

Q. How did you get involved with the Task Force on Diversity?

A. We started a diversity committee with the Ohio VMA, and I was chairman of that. We had a diversity symposium at our annual convention in 2004. Dr. Bonnie Beaver was in attendance and she was president-elect of the AVMA at that time. We talked, and she wanted to bring this to the AVMA. So when she was president, she spearheaded that.

It was so enthralling to me to have that opportunity on a national stage to make some movement and instill some diversity and inclusion work in the profession. I credit her for allowing me to get those efforts started. I planned and organized the AVMA Diversity Symposium, and we did that for nine years in a row.

Q. You said 10 years ago that you saw progress. What do you think now?

A. I see change. I’m an optimist. We have the perfect set of circumstances now for real change. It’s like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his famous speech, “How Long? Not Long,” which he delivered on March 25, 1965, on the steps of the state capital in Montgomery, Alabama, after the historic Selma March. I stood there riveted and awestruck as I listened to Dr. King say: “How long? Not long, because truth crushed to the Earth shall rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow. ... How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” As Dr. King ended his mesmerizing speech, my entire sensory being was aflame.

I truly believe that it won’t be long. The veterinary profession is like a big ocean liner at a pivot point—about to turn, redirect, and reorient. If it’s going due north and wants to go west, it can’t turn like a small boat. It’s the size of four football fields, and it’s been churning along slowly. Now it is starting to make the turn, and momentum will move it more quickly. The vector forces will make it turn. I see this change happening in society as well. We are going to have that “beloved community” that Dr. King dreamed about. How long? Not long.

Q. What are your thoughts on George Floyd’s killing and the resulting protests? What response would you like to see from the profession?

A. It is, of course, painful, and it never should have happened. One of my favorite writers, the famous African American novelist and activist James Baldwin, said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” This is applicable to what is occurring now as a response to George Floyd’s killing, both in the veterinary profession and in society at large. It is the perfect storm.

My initial reaction to the George Floyd killing was probably like most Black people in this country. “So, what’s new? Black people in America have been experiencing this kind of treatment for centuries.” An important difference is the presence of the video. Increasingly, these acts—that have always been there—are being made public and thus less deniable. Another component was the lack of humanity on the part of Officer Chauvin. The look of indifference on the officer’s face betrayed the perception he had of Mr. Floyd. If he had recognized Mr. Floyd’s humanity, he could not have held his knee on his neck for almost nine minutes.

For many Black men, it is a common theme and an ongoing fear that it could happen at any time to anyone that looks like me. Some people reading this may not understand what it feels like or comprehend how I can be in a state of continuous alert. Some see me as a successful veterinarian who has not been affected much by racism. Letters behind your name—DVM, MD, JD—do not protect you, when all another person sees is a Black man.

What happened to Mr. Floyd is personal to me. It triggers a personal past that has been marked by discrimination, both intentional and unintentional. Do not misunderstand. I have received a lot of support along the way, for which I am thankful. However, mixed in with that support are negative interactions with people who saw me as a stereotype. It takes a lot of energy to keep in the pain. My hope is that what happened to George Floyd and so many others is a catalyst for sustained movement and progress. We have had such incidents in the past, but after a short time of uproar, things go back to the status quo. It is my prayer that we have lasting systemic change this time.

There appears to be a growing momentum for change. I hope it continues, but I caution that we not focus all our efforts on the police. Policing reflects the broader culture. Violence toward Blacks in the form of discrimination is embedded in that culture. An example is the differential susceptibility and mortality of Blacks in this country to the COVID-19 virus. Changing policing without changing the broader culture will ultimately fail.

As for the profession, we must continue to tell our story. My thesis on high-achieving, science-oriented minority students, “Minority Students’ Perceptions of the Veterinary Profession,” found that few knew much about veterinary medicine as a profession, and that knowledge was related to interest. We must do a better job of involving young minority students in our work so that it is on their radar when they decide on a profession. Of course, minority students still face systemic barriers in admissions, financial support, and more. We must remove those barriers. Progress takes place outside the comfort zone.