Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee thinks of two titles that exemplify her long career in medicine.

One is trailblazer, because Ross-Lee remembers what it was like when she became a doctor more than a five decades ago, in a field that had few minorities and was dominated by white men.

But she kept pushing forward, becoming the first African American woman to lead a U.S. medical school in 1993 as dean of Ohio University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

The other title is change agent because, at each of her stops along the way, she said she’s brought “a lot of different changes, particularly in osteopathic medicine.”

She’s the founding president of the Maryland Osteopathic College of Medicine at Morgan State University in Baltimore, a medical school she’s developing to boost diversity in medicine.

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Ross-Lee, a nationally recognized expert on health policy issues and the older sister of singer Diana Ross, will be the keynote speaker Friday at a University at Buffalo forum titled, “A Mother Pearl Young Legacy Forum on Hope and Healing: Advancing Key Maternal Health Policies.”

Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee

Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee is the keynote speaker at a maternal health forum at University at Buffalo on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023.

The event, from noon to 2 p.m. Friday in the M&T Auditorium at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, is free and open to the public. Those interested in attending are asked to register online.

UB faculty and staff planned the forum in conjunction with relatives of Pearl Young, one of the 10 people killed in the racist mass shooting at the Tops supermarket on Jefferson Avenue on May 14, 2022. 

Young studied health and nutrition and received her degree from UB in gerontology studies. Young, a longtime volunteer at a Central Park food pantry affiliated with her home church, was a mother of three, a grandmother of 10 and a great-grandmother of seven, among the reasons why UB and the family felt an event focused on maternal health was a natural fit.

Young’s relative Allen Dewane, a 1993 UB alumnus and CEO of Acuity Productions, said Young was focused on health equity and the cause of food and health concerns for the Black community. She worked with older adults, Dewane said, as well as children as a substitute teacher in Buffalo Public Schools, knowing that not getting the proper food and nutrition could affect a student’s ability to learn.

“Her life’s mission was health equity and health and nutrition,” Dewane said.

‘Her efforts will not be forgotten’

Dewane said he became acquainted with the Ross family about 10 years ago through his connections in show business, when he met Rhonda Ross, whose mother is Diana Ross.

And in recent years, Dewane had hoped to organize a concert with Rhonda Ross to raise funds for Young’s food pantry, though the Covid-19 pandemic kept getting in the way of those plans.

After the tragedy at Tops, Dewane connected with UB, looking to do an event honoring Young to keep her work and her legacy alive. It was in those conversations that Dr. Roseanne Berger, a family medicine professor at UB, reminded Dewane that Rhonda Ross had an aunt who was very famous in the medical world.

Young’s family is hosting a food and soup giveaway April 29 at a vacant lot at 266 Leroy Ave., a spot which they hope will one day become a permanent site for a pantry and soup kitchen in Young’s honor.

That led Dewane to reach out to Ross-Lee.

“She’s not just another doctor,” he said. “She’s as big as Diana in the medical field. Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee is a history maker, and I want the city to come out, because we have an important person in Black history in the City of Buffalo. We should be honored that someone of such high status is coming to our town to recognize one of our Buffalo 10.”

For Ross-Lee, who travels the country to speak about health policy, primary care and women’s health, she said Friday’s event takes on an added importance because it’s honoring Young.

“We tend to focus on the event itself – 5/14 – and kind of forget the people, you know?” Ross-Lee said. “She was one of those people that I am really proud of her family for saying, ‘Hey, her efforts will not be forgotten. And in fact, we will continue to push in the areas in which she was so committed.'” 

‘It’s time for change’

When Ross-Lee thinks about U.S. health care, she said maternal health is one of the most glaring examples of this country’s health inequities.

Recent federal data shows, in fact, that Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women, according to UB.

“Maternal Health is the perfect example of the health inequities in communities of color because, not only have they been present for decades – and I mean decades – but it’s not getting better,” Ross-Lee said. “It’s getting worse. And how can that be when you consider the sophistication of the health care system that we have. So it’s time for the broader community to get involved and say it’s time for change.”

Ross-Lee, who will speak about health policy opportunities related to maternal health, said she has seen positive momentum in other parts of medicine, particularly as it relates to women in medicine.

Much more work, she said, remains to increase racial diversity in medicine.

One of the missions of the new osteopathic medical school she’s developing in Baltimore, she said, is to increase the number of minorities in medicine – and not just in primary care but also in specialty areas such as orthopedics and radiology. 

“It’s still a mountain in front of us,” she said, “but we’re climbing it, and we’ll get there.”

If you go 

What: “A Mother Pearl Young Legacy Forum on Hope and Healing: Advancing Key Maternal Health Policies.”

When: Noon to 2 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 29.

Where: M&T Auditorium in the Jacobs School, 955 Main St.

How to sign up to attend: Register online.

In addition to this event, UB’s Jacobs School will host its sixth annual Igniting Hope conference the next day, from 8 a.m. to 3:40 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 30. The conference, which focuses on discussing, addressing and trying to mitigate the social determinants of health, is free and open to the public, with registration available at this link.

Jon Harris can be reached at 716-849-3482 or jharris@buffnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ByJonHarris.