University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health medical students Kevin Franco Valle and Liana Aubrey Dawson felt called to create a space for healing and community-building after the verdict in the George Floyd murder trial was announced in spring 2021.

While the two students hail from different backgrounds—Valle came to the United States from Mexico City in 2010, and Dawson grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota—they share the experience of being a minority in a predominantly white academic institution. They also understand how the racial and civil injustices of the past year impacted students of color.

With these factors in mind and with thoughtful planning, Valle and Dawson created the virtual Lights for Life Vigil, which brought together students, faculty and staff of color, plus many other supporters. The April 30, 2021, event honored the lives of those who have been lost to police brutality and other forms of injustice. It also broadly celebrated diversity.

“While we are medical students and future physicians, a lot of us still experience things related to racism because of our identity, and we’re affected by that,” Dawson reflects. “We wanted to create a space for people to feel what they feel and to be open about it without fear of repercussions.”

A self-described “artsy person who likes the hard sciences,” Dawson also envisioned a space for creative expression.

She adds, “I’ve been a part of events in the past and seen how paintings, murals and the spoken word can bring people together.”

In the same time frame as the students’ planning for the vigil, which coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, Valle had begun making candles because he felt inspired by the symbolism of candlelight, as well as traditions from his culture.

“In Mexico, we have the Day of the Dead not only to mourn people who are gone, but also to celebrate their lives. We celebrate that they were here, and that they were part of us,” says Valle. “So it was important not just to mourn people we lost to racial injustice but also to celebrate their lives.”

To give meaning to the lives lost, with support from MD Student Services and the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Valle and Dawson planned for a fundraising component of the event to support a local community organization that educates, employs and empowers persons of color. Thus, sales of Valle’s candles raised funds for the Urban League of Greater Madison, and they invited the organization’s president and CEO, Ruben Anthony Jr., to speak at the vigil about the league’s work.

Takondwa Mwasi, a diversity, equity and inclusivity coordinator at the school, describes Valle and Dawson’s planning and orchestration of the vigil as “inspiring,” and she calls the event “incredibly moving.”

Two students sell candles
Liana Aubrey Dawson (left) and Kevin Franco Valle sell candles for Lights for Life Vigil. Charis Benjamin

Mwasi observes, “There was immense vulnerability from those who shared their lived experiences of injustice and discrimination. Despite the emotional nature of this event, Liana and Kevin wanted to ensure that, at the end, persons of color and allies in the Madison community were able to feel re-energized to continue creating and supporting opportunities for minority populations to succeed.”

The Lights for Life Vigil reflects Dawson and Valle’s vision for their future work as physicians, as each of them has chosen to pursue a career in medicine to positively impact communities of color.

“The most important thing for me in a career is to work with people and give back to communities similar to the one in which I grew up. I want to work primarily with minority populations,” says Dawson, who is enrolled in the Training in Urban Medicine and Public Health (TRIUMPH) program, the school's urban training track, which was designed to help address health inequities and chronic physician shortages in Wisconsin’s urban areas.

“I had never really considered medicine until I learned about how flexible it is and how much you can do with it,” she recalls, adding that she spent the year after earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota doing clinical research in polycystic kidney disease. Dawson also worked in a job as a server, which confirmed her decision to go to medical school because, as she says, “I was able to talk to people from many different backgrounds and build relationships with people in a very short amount of time.”

Valle’s path included earning his nursing degree from the UW School of Nursing and practicing as a nurse for five years, first as an intensive care nurse at Fort Memorial Hospital in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, and later as an RN case manager at UnityPoint at Home in Madison. While he loved nursing and received the honor of being named a Top Nurse of Madison in 2018 by Madison Magazine, he felt as though he could do more for his patients as a physician.

Though Valle is still exploring his options for his career, he is certain about his goals, noting, “Racism is undoubtably a public health issue. The effects of unconscious racism can be seen everywhere—in maternal mortality, cancer treatment, diabetes care and more. Name a statistic, and there is a disparity.”

Valle continues, “I don’t think any physicians or other medical professionals join this profession just to help one set of people but to help everyone. We need to understand the things that are affecting our patients, including racism. It’s part of our moral and professional duty as physicians to provide the care that our patients need at the clinic and at the systemic level. It’s hard and overwhelming to change the system itself, but the more people who are trying to chip away at it, the easier it becomes. Medicine is a team sport.”

Dawson and Valle hope all physicians take time to get to know the communities they serve.

“There’s so much privilege that comes with being a physician, and it’s important to show up for your community even if the community doesn’t look like you,” says Dawson. “It’s important to be in those spaces. Go to community events, such as those for the arts, jazz, the spoken word and farmers markets. Go out and talk to the community.”

She adds, “When we think about minority communities, we often think of negative things like trauma and pain, but there’s so much good going on, too. I hope we can change the lens through which we see people and challenge ourselves to find the good and see how we can add to that.”

Dawson and Valle say they are grateful for the efforts of the School of Medicine and Public Health Office of Multicultural Affairs and have seen results from the school’s commitment to creating a more diverse and inclusive environment.

“To have a paid advocate for minorities is really good,” observes Valle, who also points out the school’s success in recruiting students from populations that are under-represented in the field of medicine.

In the 2021 entering class of medical students, about one third of the students come from racial and ethnic groups that are under-represented in medicine.

About the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Dawson adds, “I think those staff members are a huge reason why so many under-represented students have been accepted to the School of Medicine and Public Health, and it’s a huge reason why I feel like I have a place in medical school. I’m so thankful for spaces like that.”

Further, Valle and Dawson applaud the school’s commitment to changing the standard for medical education.

“The UW School of Medicine and Public Health is far ahead compared to other medical schools in having conversations about health disparities and inequities,” says Dawson. “I’ve had conversations with residents who earned their medical degrees elsewhere and said they had no idea what health inequities are. That surprises me because we learned about that during our first week in medical school at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.”

By Beth Pinkerton
This article appears in Quarterly magazine.