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What is Your Number?

Rhea Boyd, MD, MPH, FAAP
January 9, 2020

In her book Thick and Other Essays, Dr. Tressie McMillian Cottom penned an essay entitled “Girl 6.” In it, she explored the ways a Professional Smart Person, as she calls them, “can be so without ever reading a black woman, ever interviewing a black woman, ever following a black woman, or ever thinking about a black woman’s existence.”

The essay was a provocative commentary, the type Dr. McMillian Cottom is known for, on how people come to make sense of the world through their use of social media. And as she noted, popular public intellectuals often only follow six Black women on Twitter. Now, the exact number six was more of a cursory observation backed up by a quick review of the twitter profiles of some of her contemporaries. In short, it was not generated via rigorous academic investigation. But it did pose an interesting thought experiment that could be instructive.

As Dr. McMillian Cottom noted, “Who you follow on Twitter in the course of being in public as a part of your profession…might say a little something about who you must engage to be taken seriously as a professional.” And, I would add, it might also say something about the types of ideas you are exposed to and who you have the ability to learn from.

In #AAPvoices, Dr. @RheaBoydMD asks fellow #Tweetiatricians to broaden the diversity of voices they follow & engage with on social media so they can better understand and champion the health of all kids.

Who we follow on social media & our views of the world
So I started thinking, for “tweetiatricians” like myself, who for many reasons, could also be considered Professional Smart People, how does who we follow on social media affect the ways we make sense of the world? And more broadly, how does it shape how we come to identify, name and address child health issues and to learn something new?

In full disclosure, I did not review the Twitter profiles of any of my tweetiatrician friends in preparation for writing this article. But I did review my own.

And I’m asking you to review your own. If you are currently utilizing a social media platform as a Professional Smart Person, or in any capacity as a pediatrician, what is your number? And how are the voices you are listening to shaping your understanding of child health and new or emerging ways to protect kids, adolescents, and their families?

“Listening - active, sustained listening - is a powerful form of advocacy. It upends power dynamics that position the loudest voice on top. It also centers marginalized voices that simply need space and silence to be heard.”

Among American Academy of Pediatrics media advocates there is a common adage: “Be first, be right, be credible.” It is a guiding aspiration that moves us to speak quickly, effectively, and reliably in the face of injustice, inequity, or disparity. It encourages pediatricians, particularly those who are new to their public voice as advocates, to adopt proactive spirits of urgency when sharing our knowledge about child health and well-being.

But in the face of the many challenges threatening child health, navigating the space between our expertise and our learning edge can be difficult.

Learning & sharing a broader knowledge base

Here I offer a few tips:

1. Asking meaningful questions is just as critical as saying something meaningful.

In a social media climate that is often quick to discourage or discredit, dare to learn. Proceed with urgent humility. Confront a lack of understanding by asking questions and listening.

2. Listen to new people that challenge the way you see the world. If unsure where to start, ask your existing circle. This is often the beginning of a tweeted or shared list of wonderful new people to follow.

Listening - active, sustained listening - is a powerful form of advocacy. It upends power dynamics that position the loudest voice on top. It also centers marginalized voices that simply need space and silence to be heard.

3. When you find wonderful people, amplify their platform by retweeting or sharing their work.

You need not always create the message. Sometimes being the channel that shares it, is just as important.

4.  Admit that you are learning and invite information from others. Experts are also learners just as learners can be experts.

Pediatric voices in the media need not always be first, but there is an urgency with which we must grow and learn together. Mastering the media to promote children’s health requires broader engagement with the many voices in the room so we may champion all children, especially those whose interests and needs we may not be exposed to yet.

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

About the Author

Rhea W. Boyd, MD, MPH, FAAP, is an Executive Committee member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) national Council on Communications and Media and serves on the board of AAP’s California Chapter 1. A pediatrician and child and community health advocate who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area, she writes and teaches on the intersections of health and justice, and travels to lead work to address the impacts of racism and poverty on children, families, and communities. She works clinically at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and serves as the Chief Medical Officer of San Diego 211 and the Director of Equity and Justice for, The Children's Trust, a campaign to expand behavioral health access to every child in California.