An Interview with Makeen Yasar
By Daviona Moore
Our next Can’t Touch This! Interview features activist and aspiring medical student Makeen Yasar. He comes to us with a strong background in organizational work focused on ending the school-to-prison pipeline for youth of color in Los Angeles.
It was my pleasure to explore Makeen’s views on the intersections of health and the Black experience, honing in on how these topics are inherently connected. We discussed his efforts to make medical school more accessible and inclusive for students of color as well as how we can address these issues in the present and years to come.
Daviona Moore: What do you do both professionally and in your personal life?
Makeen Yasar: Professionally, I work at a medical school, the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine, in their Office of Equity Inclusion and Diversity. I'm a coordinator for the office which entails work in regards to pathway development. I do a lot of work on the development side, and now the implementation side as we head into the spring working on programs for those underrepresented in medicine or underserved in medicine. In terms of curriculum development, I'm working on a project that is meant to help the training of faculty and what’s created within the school of medicine. We have a set of guidelines that are applied to the curriculum writing teams, and my job is to review and make sure that the curriculum they create is inclusive. This includes different identities and how we teach at the school of medicine in regards to race and racism.
Daviona Moore: What are these programs going to be?
Makeen Yasar: We're trying to create partnerships with local schools to enhance and bolster what those programs are already offering to certain students. We ask, “What are ways in which we can utilize the School of Medicine as a resource for the community?” I've done a lot of work at other places on how to maintain healthy lifestyles, how to be an advocate, anatomy and physiology workshops, and even field trips, where feasible.
Daviona Moore: You mentioned being part of some pipeline programs yourself. Did you experience any physical or theoretical challenges as your passion for the medical field flourished?
Makeen Yasar: It was definitely tough coming from a public school with like 3,200 kids to this very elite private school, Loyola Marymount University. I realized I had not taken enough science classes related to my pre-med requirements before I went into college, so it was a big shock for me. I remember the first couple of tests, I just got flat Cs. I did really well in high school and I was very active academically, but it was still a different level that I needed to get adjusted to. Even though I was going through some troubles, I never wavered that maybe I shouldn't become a physician, I was lucky enough to have that support.
Daviona Moore: Given that anti-Black bias has long been present in the field of medicine, what theoretical framework would you say guides you?
Makeen Yasar: In terms of my broader activist work, having an abolitionist framework is important. Understanding that these systems and institutions are the policing institutions and prison industrial complex, understanding critical race theory and how the intersections of racial identity, specifically Black identity, play a part in so much of this country's history.
Daviona Moore: What radical changes do you believe will be most helpful to providing equitable care to patients?
Makeen Yasar: I think health and medicine are very multilayered. One of the main issues is access to any type of care; access to good quality care. A lot of folks who are working class, who may not be employed, or who are residents but, you know, may not have citizenship, face increased barriers. When people do receive care, racism and implicit bias are something that impacts the type of care they receive. The biggest one that has been talked about the most is in terms of Black women and the infant mortality rate. Black women's maternal mortality rates are usually the worst, and it's even comparable to countries who we dare call “underdeveloped.” We call ourselves the most developed nation in the world, but we have such disparate health outcomes.
Studies show that the people who are underrepresented in medicine, which is Black Indigenous people, are more likely to serve their communities when they do receive medical education. More culturally competent care and understanding of its importance are key.
Daviona Moore: What systemic changes do you believe need to take place in order to attack some of these barriers? What resources do we need to give the community to embrace and help them prioritize their health?
Makeen Yasar: If we're going to use that framework of wanting to empower community members, especially around issues of poverty or healthy dietary choices, I think that you would want to be able to create structures and systems that allow people to empower themselves and feel their autonomy. This, while also providing them access to the resources that they need to then utilize to take care of themselves. Disparities and health outcomes related to diet are focused on the individual. Folks say “Black people, stop cooking with all that salt,” which ultimately focuses on the choice of the individual. We need to find a way of empowering community members to utilize more fresh fruit options and provide avenues to continue getting those resources.
To be able to get people healthier options versus fast food, a lot of people say cooking is cheaper than buying and eating fast food. That is technically true. However, I think it’s important to take into account the time-cost of being able to prepare groceries and being able to properly store those foods. What if someone doesn't have their electric bill paid and the fridge is dark? You can't store the food anymore. If the gas gets shut off, you can't cook the food. Also, working 40+ hours a week doesn’t leave much time to prepare meals.
Daviona Moore: Do you have any favorite contemporary activists?
Makeen Yasar: The person that immediately comes to mind is David Turner. He is the manager of the Brother Sons Selves Coalition. I really do wish to have an impact in the way he has an impact on others.
An obvious one for me is all of the core team of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. They're incredible, tenacious, and just so unapologetic and in terms of what they fight for and how they empower others to do the same.
More organizers that come to mind are Emilio Lacques-Zapien and Justin Marks from the Youth Justice Coalition. I look up to them a lot. They put in a lot of work and have equity in mind.
Daviona Moore: Any advice for your younger self?
Makeen Yasar: The first thing that always comes to mind is like...do less. I say that as someone who is obviously involved with a lot of things. But while I was in undergrad, I always felt responsible for someone or something, which in turn hampered my ability to do the work that was really passionate about and also take care of myself.
Daviona Moore: And finally, any projects or calls to action you would like to share?
Makeen Yasar: Yes! Follow me on Instagram! I'll be publishing a blog in March, so keep an eye out for more about health and health activism. Also, follow the Brother Sons Selves Coalition as well as the Youth Justice Coalition on Instagram.
Makeen is the founder of the Umoja Health Project which focuses on guiding Los Angeles youth to pursue health-related careers. He has also organized with the Brothers Son Selves Coalition and Youth Justice Coalition to supplement efforts to fight the school to prison pipeline.
Makeen strives to finish medical school and become a physician with the goal of helping those in his community. His passion for medicine stems from personal experiences with caring for his grandmother as a child and learning how anatomy and physiology can be applied all around him.
Photo credits: Joshua Ham (@blackcoffevisuals)