Black History Month: Dr. Stewart
Dr. Kelton Stewart, chair and graduate program director, Department of Orthodontics and Oral Facial Genetics, Indiana University School of Dentistry.
Professional degrees: DDS, 2006; Orthodontics certificate, 2008; Master’s in health professions education, 2008.
What your current role means to you and how it has been groundbreaking: I am currently the chair and graduate program director for the Indiana University School of Dentistry’s Department of Orthodontics and Oral Facial Genetics. The orthodontics department was established 80 years ago, and I am the second African American to serve in this capacity and the first to do so in 30 years. Additionally, I have been the only African American male administrator within the dental school for over two decades. From a professional perspective, I view my chairmanship as another step toward the realization of a delayed societal dream. To me, my current role represents the manifestation of both enduring hope and arduous progress. It is an opportunity to be present at the table, to have a voice to promote change, and to dispel lingering biases about the ability and worth of people of color. I see my role as groundbreaking through a more personal lens. My ascension to the department chair position represents the combined effort and success of multiple generations in my family. I am the first individual in my family to become a doctor, and I have reached this professional achievement because of the aspirations, decisions and sacrifices of many wonderful people in my life.
What being “first” in that role meant to you: While I am not the “first” to sit in my current role, it is an honor and challenge to be one of only a few. I recently had the opportunity to moderate a webinar featuring Vernice “Flygirl” Armour, who was the first African American female combat pilot in the U.S. Armed Forces. She spoke about the challenges and opportunities of being the “first” and used a phrase that deeply resonated with me. When discussing opportunities, she shared that it allowed her to promote the “tangibility of possibility.” My role as department chair and the only full-time African American male educator at my institution gives me a stage to inspire others to passionately pursue their ambitions. I serve as a tangible example of what can be achieved with planning, collaboration and grit. Furthermore, my professional story demonstrates that success can be realized, even when you are the only one.
Best dental school memory: I had a wonderful dental school experience, filled with many unforgettable memories including my first day in anatomy dissection lab, competing in the Dental Olympics and conducting community service events with various student groups like the Student National Dental Association. However, the most memorable of my experiences was an opportunity I had to present before The Crystal Charity Ball in Dallas. I, along with Professor Linda Niessen, advocated for funding from this distinguished group to support community service initiatives focused on improving the oral and systemic health of the pediatric population in the greater Dallas area. Not only were we successful in securing the desired funding, but professionally I obtained a greater appreciation for advocacy, the power of narrative and the importance of being “visible at the table.” The knowledge I learned from this early experience has worked to shape my development as a dental professional, efforts as a member of organized dentistry and practices as a leader.
Do you still keep in touch with classmates? I have lived in Indianapolis since completing my formal training but have maintained contact with several of my dental school classmates over the years. It has been a true joy to have established such strong and enduring relationships, even though separated by several states. Likewise, it is a tremendous blessing to continue my professional journey with individuals with whom I entered the profession.
Your advice, wish and hope for future Black students: To all the future Black students who may read this, I would like to offer the following advice: Be bold with your dreams, intentional with your actions and courageous with your pursuit to improve yourself and our world. My hope is that current and future Black students recognize the impact that their predecessors have had on forging the paths they traverse, and that they will work to extend this opportunity and legacy for those who follow them.
Obstacle you hope the next Black generation will avoid: Though our world is still filled with many challenges, we have seen continued progress in our society, including the first African American president and, more recently, the first African American woman to serve as vice president. These historic achievements highlight the extraordinary abilities of these gifted individuals but also serve as a testament to the power of perseverance and our collective community. However, I sincerely hope that these amazing accomplishments do not elicit a sense of complacency among the next generation of Black students. There is still much to do. Our journey continues; we have yet to arrive to the place of which our forefathers dreamed.
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