Dream Big: Inspiring Kids in Underserved Communities to Aim High and Set Goals

Cleveland Francis, Jr., MD


August 17, 2021

I know from personal experience that even brief encounters with potential role models can make a tremendous difference in broadening horizons and aspirations, and I am anxious to provide similar experiences for young Black and Brown people in our community.

I'm encouraged to see professional athletes, Olympic medalists, scientists, and others who rose to national prominence from humble backgrounds increasingly featured in national media. But I sometimes wonder whether kids who rely on school nutrition programs, and whose parents work multiple jobs just to keep food on the table, can relate to the barrier-breaking stories of super stars.

Are there more effective ways to reach the typical minority kid with limited financial resources and even more limited hope? Would a campaign at the grassroots level have a greater impact?

I grew up in rural segregated southern Louisiana in the 1950s. Becoming a teacher was the highest possible level of achievement that Black parents, including my own, dreamed of for their children. I enrolled in Southern University, an HBC in Baton Rouge that was one of only two colleges that Black students were permitted to attend in the state. Most of the students fully intended to teach high school upon graduation.

The university also presented an opportunity for us to see other professions and levels of achievement as we encountered professors in the arts, mathematics, science, and business who had gone far beyond our limited vision.

One such encounter changed my life.

I developed a sore throat, went to the campus infirmary, and saw a Black physician for the very first time. Suddenly I realized that this profession could be open to me. I was so excited about the possibility of becoming a doctor that I changed my major to premed the next week, and that doctor became my mentor.

Ten years later, I completed my cardiology fellowship at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC, and started a multicultural practice that became the second largest cardiology practice in Northern Virginia before joining with the Inova Health System. My story was chronicled in this video for Inova's celebration of Black History Month.

I have never forgotten the moment I saw that Black doctor, and I'm forever grateful that he took the time and interest to nurture my passion for a career in medicine. I'm certain that if children and teenagers see and interact with successful adults who look more like them, it can change the course of their lives, and I am committed to doing all I can to make that happen.

With the help of community leaders and the full support of the Inova Health System, we have launched an effort called "Dream Big" to introduce teens from minority and underserved areas to the broad range of career opportunities available in healthcare systems.

Everyone from physicians and nurse practitioners to administrators and executive chefs from our food services department participated in brief video interviews on how they became interested in their field, and what they do day-to-day. Our initiative is focused on Black and Brown teens, but we have included compelling life narratives from all races.

We will roll out the Dream Big program in the fall with special sessions at public high schools, community centers, and faith-based youth clubs in underserved neighborhoods. The presentations will be followed by a mentoring program for those who show interest, and we plan to partner with community leaders and organizations to establish Dream Big scholarships to help interested kids in these communities get to college.

Here are some examples of our Dream Big role model stories:

I recognize that this is not a complete solution, but I have high hopes that this initiative will make a difference in Black and Brown communities in the northern Virginia area. I challenge healthcare systems and healthcare communities across the country to set up a Dream Big program in their local area. Imagine the impact over the next 10-20 years. Lives would be changed.

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About Dr Cleve Francis
Cleve Francis, MD, is a staff cardiologist with the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute (IHVI) in Northern Virginia. He is former president and founder of Mount Vernon Cardiology Associates, co-chairman of the IHVI Antiracism/Equality Taskforce, diversity advisor of IHVI, and a member of the Inova Inclusion Counsel.

Dr Francis is also a songwriter and performer. He is a former recording artist on the Capitol Nashville Country Music Label (1992-1995), and his music has been featured at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

Connect with him:
Twitter: @muzicdoc2
Facebook: Cleve Francis
Instagram: @muzidoc


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