Maxine Thompson (then Summerhill), center, with her parents and sisters in their Syracuse home in the early 1960s.
Upstate’s Maxine Thompson was asked to give a talk titled “My Story” as part of Crouse Hospital’s Black History Month celebration. This is an excerpt.
My presentation has two parts. Part one is my personal story, as requested. Part two outlines work we’re doing to build a more diverse and inclusive environment at Upstate Medical University.
I am one of five daughters of Charles and Eugenia Summerhill. Our parents grew up on farms in Florence, Ala., and neither had the luxury of a high school education. They married young and left Alabama with a cardboard box and a baby on the way. They were searching for a better life, first by moving to St. Louis, then to Syracuse, where we lived with relatives, then in public housing.
My parents scrimped and saved and bought a three-family house on South State Street, which was a predominantly white neighborhood in 1957. We were pioneers of integration.
Dad worked in a factory, and Mom was a nurse’s aide at Community General Hospital (now Upstate). Eventually, they both worked at General Motors.
My parents gave me religious and family values, and taught me:
Life Lesson 1: If you work hard, you will get ahead in life.
Life Lesson 2: Education is something that no one can take away from you.
My parents sent me to Head Start, the Dunbar Center and the library. I was an honors student at Corcoran High School.
It was in high school that I was profoundly affected by preconceived notions of race.
I had my heart set on an Ivy League education, but my well-intentioned guidance counselor encouraged me to apply to a historically black college instead. That wasn’t what I wanted. She thought I couldn’t get into Cornell University or shouldn’t be there. Her doubt fueled my determination.
When I got accepted at Cornell, my classmates were jealous and disbelieving.
I was an Honor Society member and a Regents scholar. Why was my Ivy League acceptance a surprise?
Life Lesson 3: When people discourage me from pursuing my goals, I take that as a challenge and set out to prove them wrong.
I loved Cornell, but there were exceptions.
I remember sitting in class listening to a professor say, as a matter of fact, “Minorities are behind in school and work because of their childhood experiences. Minority mothers don’t talk to their children. That leads to delayed speech and other developmental issues.”
It was 1970. A bunch of the black students voiced their disgust, and some walked out. Not me. I knew what I thought about that professor’s so-called facts. I silently vowed to dispel another myth about black folks.
Life Lesson 4: It’s not my style to challenge. I observe, work within the culture to make change, and build relationships. I take a soft approach rather than use the stick.
After graduating from Cornell, I earned a master’s degree in social work from Smith College. My professional life at Upstate Medical University began right after graduation. As a hospital social worker, I worked with a variety of patient populations. Eventually, I supervised staff and college students doing field placements.
Several co-workers and I decided to create a Faculty and Staff Association for Diversity. Our goals were to increase awareness of the contributions of faculty and staff of color, promote the business case for diversity and offer diversity education for hospital employees.
Our group started prejudice-reduction workshops on campus. We believed the workshops would lead to better communication between staff and patients and between staff and co-workers.
We hit a stumbling block. The workshops pushed people to share personal, often painful, experiences with negative stereotypes and discrimination. In the 1990s, the Upstate campus wasn’t ready for this. We needed a new approach that was more intellectual, less emotional.
Life Lesson 5: Learn to read the landscape and work within the system to affect change.
Today, 20 years after those first prejudice-reduction workshops, Upstate has a number of programs designed to create a more diverse and inclusive environment. We introduce our diversity statement at new employee orientation, offer customized staff training to address cultural change, have annual all-employee training on cultural competency and humility, host lectures by diversity experts, and select employees to serve as diversity ambassadors across campus. We have a staff member dedicated to expanding employee recruitment efforts and identifying talented applicants from underrepresented groups.
I am particularly proud of Upstate’s outreach to our neighbors at Pioneer Homes, the low-income housing near our downtown hospital. Our first step was to help residents plant a vegetable garden. Then we added a children’s reading program and workshops to help residents quit smoking.
In 2013, Upstate began offering classes at Pioneer Homes so that residents could become health advocates. We call our program Healthy Neighbors.
Healthy Neighbors expanded to include She Matters, a breast cancer program. It is gratifying to see Pioneer Homes’ resident health advocates go door to door teaching about breast cancer and signing up their neighbors for mammograms. This collaboration exemplifies Upstate’s mission of improving the health of the community we serve.
In closing, let me mention Upstate’s efforts to “grow our own” diverse workforce. We offer Presidential Scholar and Synergy/Mercy Works internships for college and graduate students, the Hillside Work Scholarship Connection for at-risk high school students, and Project SEARCH, the school-to-work program for students with developmental and physical disabilities. In 2008, Upstate became the first hospital in New York state to host Project SEARCH.
Thank you for inviting me to share my life lessons, and the progress we’re making moving Upstate to become a more empowered, diverse and inclusive community.
The graphic below — given to me by Upstate President Danielle Laraque-Arena, MD — sums up why I do the work that I do, and why black history is important, today and every day.
This image, comparing equality and justice, hangs in Thompson’s office at Upstate.