After weeks of working nonstop, Dr. Sarah Rowan had a day off and an idea.
“I was just taking a day off and looking at the New Yorker magazines that I had mounted up on my counter, and there were a couple of beautiful covers of health care workers,” she said. “I was also thinking about some images in Denver — murals that are also health care workers that are just fantastic pieces of artwork, but I was noticing a pattern that women of color were not depicted as health care workers.”
So she reached out on Facebook to other women physicians to see if they would send her a selfie that she could turn into a portrait. Rowan is an infectious disease specialist at Denver Health by day and an artist in her free time.
She also emailed some friends from local hospitals, like Dr. Shanta Zimmer, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Colorado Hospital Anschutz Medical Campus.
“It really made me feel very seen in the face of this pandemic. I was a little bit reluctant at first to submit my picture because I feel like part of what we're doing in health care is just doing our jobs,” Zimmer said. “So being called a frontline worker as a physician sometimes feels a little bit like we're taking too much credit, but I love Sarah's project. And I love the idea of making black women and other women of color seen during this epidemic.”
The turnout was huge — Rowan received more than 150 photos of physicians from across the country. She reached out to dozens of other artists to help with the portraits.
“I think one of the messages that we hear from our colleagues who are African American or Latinx is that sometimes they feel invisible in a mostly white world, which is medicine,” Zimmer said. “The invisibility piece breaks my heart because I think that all of us want to be seen for the work that we're doing. I think those of us from majority groups probably take it for granted that we're represented in images of medicine, of science, of media, all of the time, and our colleagues who are Black or Latinx are not always seen in that way.”
Rowan employed her nanny to help sort the photos and connect with artists, and her sibling-in-law built a website for the project.
“I think these portraits and art have a way of changing people's minds or helping people think about issues differently,” said David Thatcher, Rowan’s sibling-in-law. “As I've been quarantined at home, it has felt like this way to contribute. And that felt really good. ‘Cause I think a lot of times I've just been feeling like, what can I do in the pandemic that feels constructive and useful? And this has been one of those outlets for me.”
Other artists in the project felt similarly, it gave them an outlet to give back to frontline health care workers in a way that capitalized on their skills and passion as artists. Rowan is white, and she felt like this was one way that she could be an ally to her Black and women of color colleagues.
“I hope that it serves as a visual representation of who our society values and what's worth recording with artwork,” Rowan said. “I hope that people feel honored and appreciated. I also feel hopeful that this will inspire young people to go into medicine, particularly young Black people or Latinx people.”
Zimmer, who is also the associate dean of diversity and inclusion at the CU School of Medicine, said that Rowan is a “wonderful ally and an amazing advocate.”
“We all are recognizing that in order to move the needle on racial justice and equality, everybody needs to be involved,” she said. “Literally having white people involved in fighting racial injustice is something that we absolutely need and we have to keep the momentum going.”
Rowan plans to expand the project to other frontline health care workers.