In the midst of the pandemic, Michael Bloomberg is focusing on a unique way to improve the health of Black communities: by giving money to Black students studying to become doctors.
Bloomberg, the billionaire and former mayor of New York City, announced Thursday that his philanthropic organization would give $100 million to four historically Black medical schools.
The immediate goal is to reduce medical students’ financial burdens by giving about 800 of them up to $100,000 in grants. The bigger goal, architects of the gift say, is to improve the health and wealth of Black Americans.
“If the goal of the portfolio is to create intergenerational wealth, we have to think about the mortality and the life span of the Black community,” said Garnesha Ezediaro, program lead for the Greenwood Initiative, Bloomberg’s philanthropic effort meant to address the systemic economic inequity faced by Black Americans.
The gift is the first major donation by the Greenwood Initiative, which is named after the Tulsa district where hundreds of Black Oklahomans were massacred in 1921. Bloomberg introduced the initiative as part of his presidential campaign, during which he was forced to apologize for policies he instituted as mayor, most notably the aggressive “stop-and-frisk” policing strategy, that disproportionately disadvantaged Black and Hispanic New Yorkers.
Leaders of the four institutions — Charles R. Drew University of Science and Medicine, in Los Angeles; Howard University College of Medicine, in Washington; Meharry Medical College, in Nashville, Tennessee; and Morehouse School of Medicine, in Atlanta — say that the donation is one of the biggest by a single donor to historically Black schools. They hope that it highlights the importance of their institutions to the well-being of Black communities.
Bloomberg’s donation follows others to historically Black colleges, like the $120 million pledge by Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings and his wife, Patty Quillin, and a series of multimillion-dollar gifts from MacKenzie Scott, the author and philanthropist who was once married to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. In 2013, Bloomberg gave $1.1 billion to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, with a key focus on its public health school.
After Bloomberg abandoned his electoral ambitions, he began canvassing for ways to lift up Black communities. One concern that emerged as the coronavirus spread was the disproportionate devastation in Black communities.
“The data is clear: Black patients overall have better outcomes when they get treatment from Black doctors,” the famously data-driven Bloomberg wrote in an email. “By increasing the number of Black doctors, we hope the gift will help to save more Black lives and reduce the health problems that limit economic opportunity in Black communities.”
Bloomberg’s representatives began reaching out to the schools’ officials around four weeks ago, asking how to best improve Black communities’ wealth, said Dr. Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University. The answer: Increase the number of Black doctors.
And free from a pressing need to repay student debt — the average burden on graduating students from these institutions is about $285,000 — more of the doctors may choose to become primary care physicians in needy communities, said Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, president and dean of Morehouse School of Medicine.
“What we will have the opportunity to do with this reward is relieve the stress of those students,” she said.
Under the terms of the gift, students graduating from 2021-24 are eligible for the grants. The donation does not require students to choose a particular specialty.
In the longer term, school officials hope Bloomberg’s donation helps raise awareness, particularly for other potential donors, of the institutions and the role they play. Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, president of Meharry, noted that the schools’ alumni often lack the opportunity to earn as much as their white counterparts, limiting how much they can donate to their alma maters.
One ambition is to make education at these institutions free, as New York University’s School of Medicine announced it would do in 2018 after raising $450 million from benefactors.
Dr. David M. Carlisle, president and chief executive of Charles R. Drew, said that “these funds are really going to shout to the world that historically Black medical schools are not just there, but that they’re there in a big, meaningful way.”