Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former U. S. Surgeon Genera 1993-1994l, was awarded the 13th Ryan White Distinguished Leadership Award virtually on December 18, 2020. She was the second woman, second person of color, and the first African American to serve in this role. Dr. Elders was a strong advocate for more information about sexual and reproductive health and health care for young persons. Time magazine selected her as one of the 100 most influential women and the past century.
Interview with Dr. Joycelyn Elders
Description of the video:Okay. Good morning. My name is Bill Yarber and I'm the senior director of the Rural Center for aids STD prevention. And today, in the middle of December, I'm virtually with Dr. Joycelyn Elders, and we are here following the awarding of Dr. Elders, that prestigious Ryan White Distinguished Leadership Award on December the third this year 2020. Dr. Elders is a former Surgeon General of the United States, is the 13th recipient of the Ryan White Distinguished Leadership Award, which also included two former Surgeon General's, C. Everett Koop and David Satcher. So she's a third former former Surgeon General. So congratulations Dr. Elders. For this well-deserved recognition. Dr. Elders served as a Surgeon General of the United States from 1993 to 1994. She was the second woman, the second person of color, and the first African American to serve in this role. She was born in a poor farm sharecropping family in a rural, segregated part of Arkansas. She graduated as Valedictorian of her senior class and went on to get a degree in biology from Philander Smith College in Arkansas, and a medical degree in 1960. That University of Arkansas Medical School with a specialty in medical endocrinology. And through her career, she's published over 100 articles. I'm just giving you a brief overview of her. There's a lot of information that that will that you would find on the Rose Center for aids std website. And there will be a recording of the entire awarding event, which gives much more detail about her credentials. Dr. Elders was nominated by President Clinton and confirmed as Surgeon General in 1993. And certainly she has many accomplishments and maybe good or bad. One of the most that she's noted for is her time as Surgeon General. So I've mentioned that a little bit about that. But it's only part of her renowned and outstanding career. But one I think got a lot of visibility. So as Surgeon General, she quickly faced skepticism about her advocating. For more information about sexual and reproductive health and health care for young persons. Yet, she continued to raise these important issues that some people found were controversial. In late 1994, Dr. Elders was invited to speak at a United Conf, United Nations Conference on aids. She was asked if it would be appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing people from engaging in risky forms of sexual activity. She replied, I think it's part of human sexuality perhaps should be taught. This comment raised public dispute, resulting in the loss of the support of the White House and Dr. Elders, who was forced to resign by President Clinton. Over the years, she has received numerous expressions of praise and admiration, including the Ryan White Award, just for example. I mean, this is really something Time Magazine recognized her among the most influential women in the past century. I mean, that is real and this is worldwide competition. Each recipient of the Ryan White Distinguished Leadership Award is interviewed like I'm doing now. And this interview is placed on the website of the Rural Center for aids, STD prevention. And so what I'm going to do now is try to capture with Dr. Elders her life as a person growing up in southern Arkansas, person that became a physician. And then new world got better when she became a physician. And it really got better when she became Surgeon General because she had a voice that she was committed to, to defend the right of young people to know. And her stance on that reminds me of a famous study that was done many decades ago in Massachusets. And they asked young people the kinds of things that they want to know. And it came out with a publication called teach me what I want to know. Now in that amazing, they weren't afraid to ask. And we know that many health administrators and educators are afraid to ask. So here we go, Dr. Elders, I will start asking you some questions and we'll just have a conversation. Very good. Ok. So you grew up in Arkansas. And so what was that like and how did it shape you to become the adult that you did? Well, you never know how we would have turned out differently that dad, growing up and rule set South Africans out. First of all, we were very, very poor annually its edges at segregating, so and my parents were very poor black sharecroppers. So we had to work very hard growing up as children from sunup to sundown. And it was we're talking about working for the Bible. It worked we were working to get food they eat, eat, and make sure we had plenty to eat during the winter. But that was before the time, the Food Stamps and Medicaid KD step of that sort. And so we had to really try and preserve, put up an IP, corn and peas and beans and potatoes to last through the, through the winter. But in order, we raised cotton and corn and that was in my mother can loads of everything. It it will be we didn't care if we didn't need that was we didn't go to the store and buy can goods out of the shell, right? My mother's canned peaches are still better than any. I've still taste. I didn't get that right. And so she can, you know, like when my dad would kill how we get can soft Strauss age. Even so. So it was very, it was a big city. Poor is very different from in country who we add. We really had nothing but my dad kill rabbits and raccoons and dear whatever. So for consumption. And so but you know, when I look back on it, when I think of it, probably ate pretty well, that if we didn't get jump, we didn't have jump pure, pure. We didn't really talk about, she's talking about French fries. Heavens. We raised our potatoes in. My mom's from a very seldom cook French branch, a court yards yet we had boiled potatoes and bad. Yeah. And you may have cooked them down in a whip in Western fat. But anyway, so I'm just saying the country live in what we, we had to tougher, but we are talking often about survival. And it was hard work though at the time, but they have got plenty rectus acts. So as you look back on that, maybe it's sort of hard to, to identify, but did you learn certain values that that really helped you become the person that you are? You're absolutely right. Sabbath, the oldest children. So when we are the oldest, you'd probably end up with some values that you may not have that another way beyond the obese debate children act at yeah, I was always would go one we would have to go to the fields to chop cotton and cotton or whatever. Well, you know, I often would sit at a at a Children's have some many times my mother couldn't go. Lg booth at and that was back in the days when women were often stayed in bed for 30 days after the barber Figaro days or something. But be that as it may. But I would have to go and take my sisters and brothers to chop cotton, do whatever, whatever was going on in the field at that time. And I learned one of the things I learned a lot about leadership. And I learned a lot about organization. And I learned a lot about habit. Knowing what, you know, that I couldn't just go out and yell, hit my sisters and brothers over the head to get work done. I had to learn how to organize and get them to help get the work done. And though those were some skills that I learn and carry me to in Imam was always tell us, always, do your best guitarists. I'll bet. Best. When she said, when you've done your best, may not be the best, that can be done. Good point. Good. You've done your best bets that Anna and she taught us all. A Xiaomi had an eighth grade education. So but to the smart eighth graders are. But anyway, she said, I always tell the truth. He says that they failed to pay over. Truth is the day he began to die. And so she always DRC breasts. We should always tell the true, do your best. And and to make sure that we were, you know, treat other people right. At b, there are just some basic things that horse, the key stressed the theremin. I still carried on today. While a lot of story, Yeah, it's I mean, it's obvious that, that you learned some valuable lessons because of the way that you have carried yourself in a way that you have commitment. You've had three or adult lives. So thanks for sharing all of that. We're going to skip some time here and go ahead a little bit to your decision to become a physician. Was there some sometimes like bullshit sort of turned solid angle? I want to do that. Or it may be an experience that you didn't know you're going to have. Or it's a surprise experience or some people's gradual. So let us tell us how you arrived at the decision that you'd like to be a physician. You know, growing up in a country, I would staring Why not clearing that out of the current. In a rag goods store, at least it would get me out of the cotton patch. And so that's how I found about. But then when I was a freshman in college, adductor, idiot Kirby Jones, the first black person to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School. She came and spoke at our what we call capital programmer special program that has been put on by my sorority. And she talked about the difference between the high rooms and the low. Says in-between I'm a misty pads. The rest. Well, to unfurl, you know, from that day I've heard her talk until this day, until she died that night num one year, so about two years ago, I still clearly remember her coming to our school talking and from that day forward, I will need to be just like her. And so so I I didn't grow up wanting to be a doctor. But when I knew I wanted to be a doctor. But, you know, we were so poor I could even think about it. And Bosch, but I went, I'd join the army. It means the jagged because we've got a medical student. Oh wow. That's a, that's a really interesting story. I think a lot of us that can recall, OK, I can recall it my career that a conversation with a former professor I had about getting a doctorate degree and be professor bingo. Just sort of like, hey, I'm so you know, it's it's great to be able to, to recall those pivotal kinds of things that maybe we've just by random. If I had to know oneness person, I mean, who knows? You know, what what direction would have been. So so as you begin your medical career, did you soon discover a commitment that you had that to advocate for sexual health knowledge for young people. And did you feel like that you are sort of unique amongst your colleagues of having this kind of commitment where I'm not sure. Yeah. I knew very early that yet. I went into medicine. Have y need to be the kind of doctor I wanted to be. And then I was taking care. That was looked upon. The University of Arkansas. Oh, doctor who takes care of children that have something wrong with their sex. Yeah. So that but but but but because I was taking care of children with ambiguous genitalia, hyperbaric, a brainer, genital sangha. I'm an endocrinologist. So that's hap but that's how people knew who I knew who I was. And that's a way to say so. But I knew very early that I really wanted to go in what, once I've learned, I wanted to go into medicine once and I couldn't go right away. But And then I went and joined the army. And when I went down to join the army, I finished college. And they said, Why don't you don't. That was trying to recruit people into physical therapy. And so they recruit men to physical therapy, join the army, became the physical therapist, loved it. But use the GABA-A, I'll do that in medical school. And so I made sure to Yeah, that's really good. Did as you continue your career NID, you did get your medical degree? I mean, you're known as a as a person who would would speak what you thought was right? Right. Even though some people may not agree. And so what gave you the strength encouraged to do that? You know, I think it was probably my mother or father when grandmother who always felt that I should always be of the Truth is always tell the truth. She says that they you say, tell the truth, you will always b3. And so I felt very strongly about talking about young people. And when I became a endocrinologists and really spent all my time really educating young people about their health, their sexuality, their endocrine glands, who they were and got We'd be proud of who they were. And so we, you know, and my parents really, really never race does have to be ashamed of our our sexuality. I mean, I'm nothing and they said go out and bulges out, but I'm just saying that they've always felt to be proud of your sexuality, but it's your privacy and you take care in that sense, not in a negative sense course, whoa, that's a gift to be rays. Were you accept yourself as a sexual being? Yes. Without apologizing OR shame? Yes. But I did appreciating semi stand, but yeah. So you know, when people began to question and maybe some of these stances that you had like more availability of contraception and talking about it'll masturbation. So what did did you feel intimidated or did or how did you how did that what did that do to you? When, you know, when you start to say, oh, wow, you know, people are like what I'm saying that do you think do you I guess act out that atleast I was saying the right things. You know, my parents really never never brought except to be ashamed of our sexuality at yeah, that they always taught us the importance of protecting our sexuality and making, making sure we weren't out been promiscuous and Techstars sexuality in our bodies, but never, never in any way to be ashamed of it. Well, that's what a blessing for that. And so now let's turn to this time when you were Surgeon General. Yeah. You were appointed by President Clinton. Do you think he had any hesitancy? And pointing your relative to that that maybe 11 identity you head by your colleagues if you're outspoken about some of these things that they maybe weren't. So do you think he would test it or users or what do you how do you think about that? I think President, tiny, new average about any new outspoken allies. Yeah. And he knew the thing that, you know, that Amazon was going to talk about. And so he and I don't think he was upset by that. And he said, well, I know what you're about. And they said, and I want you to go and I want you to be the Surgeon General. And I want you to make sure we educate our children. It's in Mumbai. I want you to do is we need to reduce teenage pregnancy, which we were the second highest in age, at the second highest teenage pregnancy in the, in the world. And at ease. And I want you to do something about that. And he always felt, but you want to Eric to everybody and all people have as many children as they wanted to add, but make sure they were planned children. So we went out we went out to educate and try and make after I became director, you see, when I was in a pediatric endocrinologist at the med center, the thing I was I took kick children with that who that ambiguous genitalia, upbringing, precocious puberty, early development or anything. I think that they would they would even call the switchboard operator as well. We need to see that doctor who see children who have abnormal sex or is up and the switchboard new to send them to go do it. But but I think that one of the things that worked on these children lie, don't be proud of their sexuality, but to protect their sexuality and to take, and to make sure that they didn't, but didn't do anything to really learn that Sanger. And I'm sure our doctors do that, but I mean, we really everybody knew I'd get back. Yeah, right. Yeah, no. Here though, there may have been other people love talking about it, but but you had the strength, commitment encouraged to. Zoltan being more visible. And then like you said, I want to talk to Dr. Elders. She's she's the expert on all of this and she'll tell you the truth, Ed. So that's a great thing. It's a tribute to you. So let's then talk about this. United Nations Conference on aids. And Cauchy were asked the question and knew that surprise you. And did you have to ponder your response or just sort of came out? And it surprised me that ATL but question but meeting, but I really knew everybody in every professional people. So I didn't think that this within, you know, so when I was asked ABC the strengths, strengths and we flip that out. And then it's just about what I think about a psychiatrist that happen when you're asking me about masturbation? I didn't know I'd said aid, abstinence, being faithful. Honda is in and then the D that do other things. I didn't even say machination. I've met. Then he got up and asked me very directly. And well, we asked directly have to yep. Everybody knew our ways and I was asked a question. I always answered it directly as I did at well, of course said and you know, even if I had to give that answer this morning, I've gotta give the same one. Wow. Well, we're good for you. So then I guess a lot of people are uncomfortable that whole topic anyway, if even saying the M word, attract, let alone something represents that the federal government. But it's unfortunate that had to lead to to all of you leaving US. Surgeon General. This feels makes me feel good at the fact that you're still proud of of what you did and what your what you what you said, and what did the dismissal surprise you? Yes. It did surprise me. It didn't surprise me to the point that I didn't. But I was going to be open and honest about ACT UP and I was really I had to be open and honest for children. That was a pediatric endocrinologist. And I wanted our children. I took care of children with ambiguous genitalia and never baby. I'll always be proud of their stack. Wow. That's a model for all of us who are committed to advancing sexual health for young people to, to realize that. I mean, if a person wants everyone to. To improve what they do their own sexual health and Rob field, right? Cuz some people try to discredit at, intimidate and, and silence the voice. And, you know, those of us in sexual health education to really admire what you stood for and your strength and courage and commitment to do that. In your career, you have faced criticism for being too for akin to bold. And you've talked some about yellow, the kind of personal traits that it takes to, to do that. But if you were talking to some physicians in the, earlier their medical school, maybe what you've already told this is what you would tell them, but anything else you'd like to add that you'd really tell them about being truthful to to the discipline and being truthful to the principal. So of education. I think the habit to act albums that you need to be open and honest about their sexuality. We go after it. Hi, and then mean that we don't want our proud of our sexuality, we don't need to protected. But that does that. And, and for that reason we have to make sure. And we teach our young people. Well, we now, yes, the adversary can never adolescent young people that we teach our adolescence to be crowded with your sexuality, but protected and respected, and always do the things that, that, that you are proud of. And I feel the need for open and honest in teaching our children, act as you know, courtship. And so and that's our, that's our approach. Yeah. Well, it's so refreshing to hear that because it all in lot of ways the people that have a need to do that because of their occupation or even parents really struggle with that. And you don't, oftentimes in this field that you're in and I am as a, as a scientist and an educator, do you get many pats on the back and say, thank you. It's almost like we're walking down the hall and I think I'll go the other direction. So because they don't have the commitment and the strength and courage and, and you know, it's because of your of the values that you have. And I think most parents being in a pediatric endocrinologist. I just felt the most was parents. I would I would always ask about oh, oh, no. That always wanted me. Oh, please. Please do. So. So I I I I never I never met a parent who did not want me to talk to their children about their sexuality. Even though even though the children who had precocious puberty, your early sexual development, they wanted they wanted somebody to really talk with them and they wanted to talk with them and so on. You can be proud, of course. And you know from hearing what you're saying. And I, I believe this myself, most parents want their children to know about sexuality, but they don't know how themselves to approach it or to do it, right? Yeah. And so and of course, if you're prestige and as a physician, and those are woven physician so forth, you have a lot of credibility. And so, you know, it's a it's really sort of a calling to say, you know, I have an opportunity to hear, to impact some young people. And, you know, there's a lot of award in life. And it could be an NIH salary and secure job. But when you educate a person and begin to accept their sexuality and a responsible good international price to that never really break responsible thing. Yeah, right, is just really quite rewarding. So as you look back on your career, did you ever imagine that that's the credit but that you had well, you know, I think when I look back on my career, I think I probably about the best reuse that I could imagine. When I was starting out, I was the pediatric endocrinologist and I really am. But then I was referred our children to do the hospital, yada, yada. But that had ambiguous genitalia or any, you know, we didn't have a huge cadre of people. So I will get an opportunity to see a wide variety of children talking to parents who have children with different beliefs and thoughts. And I really enjoyed it. And I think the parents enjoy. And that kids in China and they children in Galilee. And I'm, I'm really proud of bank rate where you should be. And, you know, it's really, many people aren't sometimes. And, you know, it's a really a blessing to be able to look back and, and to feel, you know, that the personal gratification of, of making a difference and to live your professional career based on your tenets of, of your character. And so Certainly, you know, you deserve the Ryan White Distinguished Leadership Award. And what does it mean to you to receive that award? It you can't know how much that really means to me. It, it, it add known. Knowns ran odd amalgam brand might live for a very long time and I'm very proud of what the bangs it his mother said disband at Bat Bar and worked for for our children. But to me, this was just really it really was very, very important and a lot to me. And it means a lot to me. What were you continuing to do for young people that are coming along behind him and put him for what she what she's done. And I'm very proud of Ms. White, and I think that she really stood up and fought for for our chow. Yeah. And really made a difference for a lot of us. And I'm I'm, I've been proud rep for a long time. And a this essence. We first got into the Biola worrying about HIV, aids and ambiguous genitalia. Long. That's what I've been of that. And I'm trying to make a difference for children and making them feel that they are important. And then and just go, do, go and do what they wanna do best. Wow, well, thank you for those comments and I mean, you certainly did succeed. What do you want to be most remembered for? Open I think about what I want to be most remembered bar. I'm not sure I really now, but I want to think that dead at the elders who was always up Frank, bear and fought for the rights of children and the rights of people. And I think most people think of mean, oh, yeah, I know they do. And that's one reason why you were selected as one of the 100 most influential women in the past century. Time Magazine. That's why your eye a model for all of us and sexual health. And you got to Ryan White Award. And is there anything else that you would like to add that maybe we haven't addressed? Now? Certainly, thank you for what you doing. Things that you band two, to make a real difference in. Heaven. That's ran firewall argued, and I just think that and I think Ms. White Yeah. But what she's wasn't always easy. But, you know, I know that, you know, and, and, and, and so I feel that the whole country really, really owes her real gratitude that maybe we haven't paid it yet. I know. I'm just being a mom is enough to send route. But He's big. Extra special. Yeah. Well, thank you for saying that. I've worked with her for over a decade on the Ryan White Award. And I got to know real well and I really admire, admire her. Certainly a role model. Dr. Elders, you are truly a public health hero. And your advocacy for young people's right to know about their sexual health. You advocated for what they want to know, what they need to know. And despite opposition, you're courageous belief and commitment to educate young established a model for all of us and improve the health of many people. As you have said, we've tried ignorance for 1000 years. It's time to try education outright. That's right. Our admiration of u can be best reflected. And just paraphrased quote from Mark, that Martin Luther King Junior. The ultimate measure of a person is not how he or she stands in a moment of comfort or convenience, but where he or she stands at times of challenges in controversy. We are thankful for you and for what you stand for. Congratulations again on receiving the Ryan White Distinguished Leadership Award. It's been great that we could gave you this award and we admire what you've done and thanks for all of your contributions. Thank you. That we also thank you for the contributions you've made and that you've been making over the years and you've made it extra withheld it at the ABS around when people walked around and whispered in the closet, nobody taught me talk openly about anything. And I think in many ways, aids made us come out and start talking a little more than we were ever talking before. And hopefully we began to educate people. And we drag ignorance. As I said, for about seven years, that Brooklyn is time. Try education. Well, OK, thank you. That's a great way to end this interview with a famous quote of yours and congratulations again, we appreciate all you've done. Thank you.