BOTC Reaches the Quarter-century Mark
By Tom Kerr
Twenty-five years ago, Jerry Bentley was a level-II clinical student from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. She was poised and motivated to enter into a promising career in occupational therapy, yet deep down Bentley felt very apprehensive--a black woman trying to make her mark in a white-dominated profession. It was 1974.
But her reservations changed to empowerment after she went to the AOTA national conference in Washington, DC, that year.
"I was amazed that there were other black students and therapists who were just like me," Bentley told ADVANCE recently. "This conference was an awakening, not just for me, but for many others."
From that core group the Black Occupational Therapy Caucus was born. A grassroots organization, BOTC has become not only a guiding influence in the lives of minority OTs but a strong political force that has changed the face of OT. In April, members of the Black Caucus gathered at the AOTA conference in Indianapolis to celebrate the organization's 25th anniversary. The assembly looked back on its accomplishments as the first splinter group to be recognized by AOTA, and its influences on other ethnic, disability and sexual-preference minority caucuses.
The BOTC is to make a memorial quilt in honor of black OTs and OTAs whose work during their lives has had an impact on occupational therapy. Each state chapter is being asked to prepare one 12" square with their submitted names on it, along with a short biography of the individuals, which will be laminated and displayed along with the quilt at the Seattle conference next March and each year thereafter.
Bentley, MS, OTR/L, currently an instructor at Howard University, Washing-ton, DC, serves as political action committee chair of BOTC and was one of its main organizers. Inspired and active in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements that were prevalent in the 1960s and early 1970s, she and other students decided to start their own crusade to gather black OTs for a common cause.
"I was one of the students who kind of spontaneously began passing out notes to all of the black conference attendees asking everyone to meet on the last day of the conference," she said. "Unknown to us, at the same time, there was another group of mainly black OT educators who had scheduled a meeting for that day. So the students and the educators met together."
Other organizers of this historic assembly were black OTs who would become leaders in the profession, including Lela Llorens, Yvonne Flowers, Eloise Strand, Joyce Lane, Javan Walker, William Lofton and Wimberly Edwards.
Though they expected a good turnout, many where surprised when 75 to 100 people showed up for the impromptu meeting in the hotel lobby. Filled with youthful enthusiasm, Bentley already foresaw big plans for the group.
"My dream was to be Angela Davis," Bentley recalled with a chuckle. "Black people everywhere were organizing, especially in grassroots organizations. What was significant about this group was its excellent combination of founding members. We had a student activist group with the motivation to pull everyone together and a group of educators who helped form the agenda."
The new coalition left DC with the goals to identify, share and attempt to work on issues germane to black therapists and students, Bentley said. The group also wanted to bring more members into the fold by increasing re-cruitment, retention and certification of blacks in OT.
One of the issues of most concern to the caucus was discrimination in the profession. Bentley said that in the 1970s, many blacks had difficulty getting accepted into schools let alone finding and retaining jobs.
"When we recently looked back at our history, we found some OTs who left the profession because they could not find jobs that matched their skills," she said. "One woman became a psychologist because of the discrimination she found in the profession. My former roommate from college also left OT because she had problems getting promoted. She eventually became a chiropractor.
"I feel that AOTA is a microcosm of society," said Bentley. "Although as occupational therapists we like to think such a caring profession would be more sensitive of these issues, that's not how it always played out."
An era of suspicion
Because the group was grassroots and expressed black pride, Bentley said that many OTs, both white and black, were suspicious of the BOTC. The fact that in the early years, the group held closed meetings exacerbated that fear.
"I think we were viewed by some as a militant organization that was plotting to overthrow AOTA or some nonsense like that. You have to realize that things were different back in the '70s. People could be at risk of losing their jobs if they were associated with our group."
Bentley said that the fear ran both ways.
"That's why we didn't open our meetings to non-blacks," she said. "Members wanted it that way because some just didn't feel comfortable talking in mixed groups. But we didn't want anything taken the wrong way, either, from those who didn't understand where we were coming from."
Lou Robinson, MS, OTR/L, assistant professor and academic fieldwork coordinator of the OT program at Maryville University in St. Louis, is the current historian of the Black Caucus. She admits that she was one of the black OTs reluctant to join the group in its early years.
"I got caught up in the hearsay about the program," Robinson said. "I hadn't heard about any of the positive things that the caucus had to offer. For me, it wasn't a concern about hurting my employment status; I just didn't want to be labeled as militant."
Behind those closed doors were not cries for an OT revolution but for in-depth discussions concerning the problems that black therapists faced and what caucus members could do to solve them. As the years passed, black OTs began to turn to the caucus not only to take an active role in OT politics but to find the support they needed to get through hard times.
"The Black Caucus helped me remain an OT," said Bentley. "If I had not had this network of black therapists, I probably would have gone into something else. There was a time when I went to the national conference just to go to the Black Caucus."
The door opens
Realizing the good that the national caucus was achieving, members began to form state chapters and later, regional districts, too. Soon, the BOTC became a national clearinghouse for other groups who wanted information on minority affairs.
Then at the AOTA national conference in Philadelphia in 1981, the caucus found a friend in President-elect Robert Bing, who seemed to have a deep interest in how the organization could expand the profession's diversity. Members responded by inviting him to speak at the BOTC meeting that year.
"Robert Bing was the first AOTA president to embrace the caucus," said Bentley. "He was the first to attend our meetings, and it really was an important part of our history."
"He definitely wanted the participation of black OTs in AOTA," said Robinson. "He extended to our members the invitation to get involved in AOTA by serving on committees and encouraged participants to review the association bylaws and help make the profession aware of issues specific to African-American OTs."
While the Black Caucus and AOTA remain separate entities, following Bing's visit, suspicion and distrust began to fade.
"Fran Acquaviva, the former AOTA associate executive director, worked closely with us to form a bridge between the two organizations," said Bentley. "He's the one who got us involved in the Minority Task Force. He helped develop collaboration with us more than any other AOTA officer."
With increased visibility, the Black Caucus began to attract more members from among once-reluctant OTs who were now finding out about the group's achievements. Robinson, who had been active in other minority allied health groups at the state level, first became aware of her misperceptions in the late 1980s.
"As time went on, we were more educated about what the Black OT Caucus was all about; and I felt comfortable in being part of the big organization," said Robinson, whose state blackOT group joined in 1990. "As our members attended the national caucus, they would come back from the conferences energized, connected and very proud to be a member of the Black OT Caucus."
Thanks to effort of the caucus, AOTA began to focus more on minority issues in the late 1980s. But this is just one of the many contributions that BOTC has made to the OT profession. Here are a few of the achievements and purposes the caucus has identified.
* It brings African-American occupational therapy professionals together by providing support and sharing information. This original goal of the BOTC is still at its foundation today.
* It brings recognition to African-American practitioners in the field. The BOTC increases visibility of blacks in the profession even to members who are not directly involved in the caucus.
* It has increased financial support for black OT students. BOTC's Francis Swift Memorial Scholarship helps defray tuition expenses for students. BOTC state chapters also offer scholarships.
* It has had a direct influence on AOTA. BOTC was a driving force behind the former Multicultural Affairs Program (MAP) a consortium of OT diversity groups within AOTA which advocated and helped develop policy concerning diversity in the national organization. The program was cut early this year when expenses at the national office were slashed during recession in the rehab industry.
Through the years, the BOTC was headed by presidents who became key figures in occupational therapy: Joyce Lane, Doris Witherspoon, Brenda Johnson, Eloise Strand, Bentley, Tanya Cotton and Saburi Imara. New President Margo Strotter will strive to continue the tradition.
Looking toward the future
While leaders of the BOTC enjoy looking at the achievements of the past, they also see a stronger future built on that foundation.
"Under the leadership of Saburi Imara, there has been an increase in membership and enthusiasm for the caucus," Bentley said. "She is a well organized and focused person with a great ability to get things done for other people. She started an endowment for scholarships, brought a more focused approach to our regional efforts and was a major part of collecting the history of black OTs. We are confident that Margo can take this momentum and help us achieve our future goals."
"I think our basic goals will continue to be involved in recruiting more black OTs," added Robinson. "With the collapse of the AOTA diversity program, we are going to need to have a more focused effort to recruit minority students."
AOTA's recent move to remove the Multicultural Affairs Program is a sore subject for most BOTC members, who argue that it shouldn't have gone on the chopping block.
"I think we are at a very critical point in our profession," Shirley Jackson, MS, OTR/L, FAOTA, director of OT at Howard University, Washington, DC, told the Representative Assembly meeting last April in defense of two motions to reinstate the program. She could hardly believe the day would come when there would have to be a move to save the program. "I guess I'm just appalled...that this is even on the floor," she said.
Aside from the political presence that the BOTC offers minority OTs, Bentley adds that the caucus will always serve as an important resource and support system for black OTs.
"I think that discrimination still exists, but in terms of AOTA, the atmosphere between us is much warmer," she said. "I think there is mutual respect there.
"I also think that it's the youth of this caucus that keep us strong," Bentley added. "We have a number of students who come to our national meetings who have been inspired by the caucus. Some of them have received scholarships through the caucus.
"If you are a recipient of these services, you understand the importance of that gift and want to give something back." *
* For further information on the quilt and to get the necessary forms, please contact Jerry Bentley at (202) 806-5693 or (202) 543-7149. The deadline for submission will be Feb. 28, 2000.
Tom Kerr is ADVANCE associate editor.