Zach speaks with Dr. Brian Williams, an accomplished surgeon and highly sought-after public speaker who shares his insights on racial trauma, resilience, and social justice. Thrust into the national spotlight in July 2016, Dr. Williams became a voice for racial reconciliation after a Dallas sniper shot 12 police officers at an anti-police brutality protest. At a press conference days after the tragedy, he voiced his concerns as an African-American man with regard to racial injustice and simultaneously decried violence targeted at law enforcement. He now travels nationally inspiring audiences about resilience and social justice at the intersection of race, violence, and medicine. He walks us through his actions that tragic day, talks a bit about his experience with the Dallas Citizens Police Review Board, and offers several pieces of wisdom for young professionals seeking to build effective partnerships for their personal and professional development and journey.
Interested in his podcast Race, Violence & Medicine? Follow this link to listen on a variety of platforms.
Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and you know what we do. We have authentic conversations with real folks to center black and brown experiences at work, and so if you are working any type of 9-to-5, even if it’s your own 9-to-5, or maybe you’re working, like, a 3-to-6. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know what y’all–you know, if you’re out here working, you’re grinding, you’re at work, you’re an underrepresented person, this is the platform for you. And so we have these conversations–and it’s not just me talking to y’all or kind of, like, ranting into the ether. It’s more so me having conversations with black and brown executives and different types of professionals, public servants, entrepreneurs, educators, activists, creatives, artists, and we’re doing this all with the goal of amplifying underrepresented voices at work. And so again, we have a really great conversation. The person that I’m really excited to talk to today and introduce to you all, Dr. Brian H. Williams. Dr. Brian H. Williams is a first-generation college graduate who earned a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the United States Air Force Academy. After six years of active duty military service, he followed a different call to serve and enrolled into medical school at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine. He did his general surgery residency at Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts and a fellowship in trauma surgery and surgical critical care at Emory University/Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Upon completion of his training, Dr. Williams served on the faculty at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, where he taught and mentored students, residents, and fellows. Dr. Williams is well-known for his role in treating victims of the July 7, 2016, Dallas police shooting. He was the trauma surgeon working on the seven injured officers who were emergently transported to Parkland Memorial Hospital. At a press conference following the tragedy, his heartfelt comments about racism, gun violence and policing touched thousands. Unbeknownst to Dr. Williams, his impromptu speech became a viral media event, and his life of comfortable anonymity ended. In addition–
Brian: That’s a mouthful. [both laugh]
Zach: It is, but it’s real though. In addition to his work as a trauma surgeon, Dr. Williams travels the country as a thought-provoking speaker sharing his unique insight on resilience, gun violence, and racial justice. He is also an opinion writer featured in the Dallas Morning News and hosts the podcast Race, Violence & Medicine. So y’all, we’re gonna have all the links. If y’all don’t remember the black doctor who was–it was all on the Twitters, you know what I’m saying, it was all on the social media. If y’all don’t remember all that, we’re gonna have all of his reference materials in the show notes, but, you know, that will be after y’all listen to the show. Dr. Williams, how are you doing?
Brian: I’m doing fantastic, Zach. Thanks for having me on.
Zach: Man, thank you for being here. So let’s get into it. You were already known within your field, but you were thrust into the national spotlight after treating victims of the July 7th, 2016, Dallas police shooting. You were the trauma surgeon working, and so you were actively, right–like, I remember even in that video, you were–it was clear that you had just got done working. Like, you were–you were working. You know, I’m really curious. Considering your personal experience with police and the history of policing in black communities, what was going through your mind, like, just treating–like, in that situation? Can you talk about just what–of course there’s no question as to your oath and your commitment to deliver care, but what I’m trying to understand–so, like, I want to be very upfront with that. What I’m trying to understand though is, considering your own experiences and your own identity, like, what was it like? Was it automatic? Was it just like, “Look, this is what I do?” Like, can you walk us through that experience?
Brian: Sure. In that moment, when the officers were coming in, nothing else mattered. I just fell back on my training. So my experiences, my life experiences, that was not a factor in how I approached what I did, and, you know, it’s a large team of nurses and doctors and students. So it wasn’t just me, although I was the trauma surgeon that was on call that evening at the hospital. But in that moment, I’d give them the same sort of care I give any patient. Like, I do not differentiate based on occupations or race or ethnicity or–you know, all of those ways we try to categorize people as being different. That matters not to me. At the moment, I just saw a human being that was severely injured and critical, and I am trained to do things to try to save their lives. So that was what–like you said, it was automatic. It just was a crisis. My training kicked in, and I went to work.
Zach: And so then talk to me a little bit about, like, so–you know, so after the care had been delivered and, you know, after you were done performing surgery and care, again, to the victims, you know, you had the conference. At what point did then, like, all of the emotions and thoughts and things come rushing back?
Brian: Well, let me walk through the timeline of those few days. The shooting was on July 7th, 2016, but you may or may not recall that on July 5th, there was a shooting, Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge, and on July 6th, that was Philando Castile in Minnesota. And then we had July 7th. So then on July 7th there were actually protests happening all around the country to bring awareness to this ongoing issue. People remember Dallas because of the tragic shooting that occurred there. This is happening all over the country. So I was aware, in those preceding couple of days, of those two deaths, and you could imagine that the public discourse was basically a screaming match about black lives matter and blue lives matter and all lives matter, and there’s all this negative talk. So when I went to work on July 7th, I was aware of that but didn’t expect this sort of tragedy to occur. A few days later, on July 11th, was when the press conference occurred that you referenced. So there was a couple days between the time of the shooting and the time of the press conference where I pretty much just cut myself off from society. I wasn’t watching the news. I wasn’t listening to the radio. I wasn’t reading the paper. I just was in my own little bubble, because that night was–it’s the worst night of my career. It’s something I still think about to this day. It just really got to me for a number of reasons, but the big thing was that this was fueled by intolerance and hate and racism, and all of these elements that we don’t discuss about in an honest, open manner fueled this event, and to lose any patient–but that happened on a night that was particularly volatile and unfortunately became historic for all of the wrong reasons. And going into the press conference, these were the things that I was thinking about – you know, what’s going on in our country? What role am I playing to bring us together? Am I doing enough? What have I done with my life? There was just a mix of a lot of different emotions and thoughts which I didn’t have the answers [to] or wasn’t really able to process completely, which takes us to the press conference that you mentioned, and that all kind of spilled out in the moment without any plans or preparation. I just planned to sit there, just to be seen, because my wife felt that the country needed to see that there was a black surgeon there that night trying to do the right thing.
Zach: You know, so let’s talk a little bit about the conference, right? So, like, at the conference following the shooting, you said, quote, “I want the Dallas police officers to see me, a black man. I support you. I will defend you. I will care for you. That does not mean I do not fear you.” Can we talk about, like, what you meant here? Like, what does that–and it’s interesting, right, because it’s almost–one could almost argue that those things are… like, there’s a duality there, right? So, like, when you said this, what did you mean?
Brian: Right, and that’s exactly the word I was going to use. That’s the duality that I think many black people in this country deal with. So to break it down into two parts, when I said “I support you,” I’m a child of a military veteran. I have a lot of military veterans in my family. I went to the Air Force Academy. I was an Air Force officer. So I know what it means to wear a uniform, I know what it means to serve something greater than yourself. I know what it means to make sacrifices to serve a greater good. So although I’m not a police officer, that sort of ethos is not something that was foreign to me.
Zach: And so, you know, because you took all of this–like, you took all of this, right? Like, so your fear, your frustration, your dedication as a public servant and as a consummate professional, and you mobilized that into an effective partnership to actualize change, right? And so here’s my challenge though, right? My challenge is I can’t look at any point in American history where police have done right by black people. So, like, just the historicity of policing in America for black bodies, and, like, not to mention, like, the pathological narratives that majority media propagates, as well as the institutional systems and laws that make holding police accountable so incredibly challenging. And so I’m really curious, ’cause I–I know that I’m not the only person who has these challenges. I don’t doubt that, Dr. Williams, that some species of this has been on your mind at some point of time, and so I’m curious to know, like, with those things in mind, what was your journey to become, like, the chair of the Citizens Police Review Board, and can you explain what it meant to manage through those relationship dynamics?
Brian: Yes, I’m on-board with what you’re saying as far as the challenges, and I guess we’ll get back to that in a second, but as far as the journey to the Citizens Police Review Board, that was–the mayor’s office reached out to me about potentially joining the board as a chair, and that was because a prior chair was turning out, so he needed someone new. Now, the Citizens Police Review Board is meant to be this body that will hear complaints from citizens about their interactions with police, and they can bring them to the board, we can deliberate and try to give them some resolution. So that’s what the board existed for at that time. I didn’t know that the board existed when I was asked. I didn’t know what it did. I didn’t know if it was worthwhile. I didn’t know if I had the time. I had all of these questions about the board, but I asked around and learned about it, and I said–I thought, “Yes, this can be something good for the community. It can be a voice for citizens,” and I felt that I could make a positive contribution to all of this. It was definitely challenging. I learned a lot about the Dallas Police Department. I learned a lot about community activists. I learned a lot about various board members in City Hall. So there are a lot of stakeholders working towards public safety, and to bring them all together to come to some sort of collaborative effort to ensure that the public has trust in their police department is challenging, and I think it’s actually now an ongoing journey now that the board has been revamped and given more support as far as resources, personnel and a budget, which we did not have when I was a chair.
Zach: And so I’m curious though, right, like, when you talk about–it’s just interesting, because I don’t think that we have a lot of examples in American history when it comes to, like, relationships where the underrepresented voices have, like, actual authority over a majority group and things don’t become strained, like, either quickly or over time, and I think authority and accountability is a struggle for anybody, right? So I don’t think that that’s unique or exclusive to dominant and sub-dominant groups, but I’m really curious about, like, what did it look like, especially–like you said, at the time that you were the chair there was not a budget. Like, what did it look like to really be the chair on this review board and talk about right behaviors? Like, do you feel like you were able to have honest dialogue? Do you believe that there was, like–do you believe that you had the actual authority to kind of, like, drive substantive change? Like, what did that look like for you?
Brian: So I think that everyone involved knew exactly who they were getting with me as chair. For one, they saw my statements at that press conference. So I [?] there. Two, I wrote an opinion piece that published in the Dallas Morning News where–actually, I wrote two regarding the police, one that talked about the history of slave patrols and how this distrust in black communities goes back for hundreds of years. It just doesn’t happen overnight. And I talked about, you know, police departments have historically been there to maintain control over communities of color. It wasn’t about public safety or protecting their rights, it was about keeping communities of color in line. So that is the history with which we need to reckon in order to move forward. So everybody knew exactly what they were getting with Dr. Brian Williams, [laughs] which, you know, had its pluses and minuses. I think the benefit was they couldn’t accuse me of having any kind of agenda, right? I was criticized from both law enforcement and, you know, black civilians for the comments I made. And I, you know, received praise as well. So I feel I was pretty much solidly in the middle of all of that that I could equally appeal to and offend anybody that was involved in moving the Police Review Board forward.
Zach: So your journey didn’t stop there, right? Like, what did you learn about yourself? Like, what were some of the main things that you learned about yourself that then prompted your transition from Dallas into the South Side of Chicago?
Brian: Well, and I’ll just say, you know, that last comment I was obviously kidding when I said offending people. [both laugh] But I guess the point there was I was moving forward with this mission to ensure a voice for the citizens of Dallas with integrity, and I did not try to have any sort of self-gain from it. It was about serving the city of Dallas and the people of Dallas.
Zach: Which is rare, right? ‘Cause I think, especially, like, in the political climate that we’re in today, right, like, you see these voices, like, on the far right who–like, they’re black voices. Like, they’re tokens, like, coming and, like, sharing specific talking points and narratives without any, like, real intellectual substance behind them, and I think what really intrigued me about you–’cause I’ve spent a majority of my life in Dallas, and my mother is still in Dallas. I have family in Dallas, and so I was very familiar with–like, with your work and your statements, and they run very true to me and sensitive for me considering that I’m from that area, right? So what I’m curious about is did you ever feel any pressure to kind of, like, lean one way or the other or take on certain agendas or certain talking points that you yourself didn’t agree with from a principle perspective?
Brian: The short answer to that is yes, and I should say, you know, I wasn’t immediately embraced by citizens that were working on police reform. [They didn’t?] know who I was. You know, I was a new quantity, and people have been working on this reform for decades, right? These are Dallas natives that were born and bred here in Dallas, and I was–
Zach: The activist culture is deep, right? There’s a lot of community servants and activists who have been on the ground. So yeah, I’m right there with you. And it’s hard. It’s hard to break in, right? Like, when you’re new and, like, the main thing you have when it comes to community activism–from what I understand, because I would not consider myself a community activist because I know that I want to respect that work, but what I understand is, like, really it’s your relationships–your social capital is, like, gold, right? That’s, like, the only thing you have, and if you’re unknown, then it’s hard to, like, you know, break the ice.
Brian: Exactly. And I will say your podcast is a form of activism.
Zach: I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you, Dr. Williams, man. You got me blushing, man. [both laugh]
Brian: You’re doing it, man. You’re doing it.
Zach: Man, I really appreciate it. So let’s talk about South Side, Chicago. Like, you transitioned, you went there. Like, what was the call or the impetus to transition from Dallas to Chicago?
Brian: Well, my journey in health care–I mean, I’ve always been very mission-driven about what I can do to eradicate racial health care disparities, and that is a nation-wide mission, right? That can occur anywhere. Now, as a trauma surgeon, I’m particularly focused on gun violence as well. So South Side, Chicago, you know, there’s a lot of gun violence here. It’s frequently talked about in the media in ways that aren’t–I think that dehumanizes the population that’s there living within these violent communities. There was a new trauma center that opened up in the area, and several of my mentors were here at the trauma center, so there was this perfect storm of the mission that I want to serve with a community that was very active in getting this trauma center here built with people I know that had flocked here, and I said, “You know what? I would like to be a part of having impact that will cross generations,” right? And I think it’s happening right now, and that’s why I wanted to join this group here. As far as Dallas, you know, that was not an easy decision. I had been in Dallas–I was in Dallas for 9 years. That’s the longest I’ve been in one spot my whole life. It’s now my de facto home. [laughs] If Texas will accept me, it’s pretty much my de facto home. I’ve been moving my entire life as a military kid, as a military officer, you know? I feel home in Dallas. I still follow what’s going on in Dallas. I’m interested in what’s gonna happen to my home city.
Zach: And so, you know, I’m interested, right, in addition to this you’re a respected health care leader. Can we talk a little bit about how your work and the legacy of racism impacts health care inequity, right? Like, so you’re coming in, and you’re in Chicago, and yes, like, you’re supporting–there’s a gun violence issue in South Side, Chicago, and I–you know, honestly, I really do wish that some folks never found out about Chicago, because I feel as if it’s, like, the default when anybody ever wants to pathologize black folks. It’s very annoying. It’s just like, “Golly, I wish that–anything Chicago, I just wish y’all wouldn’t have known about it.” But, you know, in your work, can you talk a little bit about, like, how health care inequity shows up, right? Like, that’s been an ever-growing talking point or just point of awareness, right, like, in headlines and mainstream media, growing awareness around health care inequity for black and brown folks juxtaposed to majority members, white counterparts. Can we talk a little bit about, like, what you’ve seen from a perspective of inequity and kind of, like, how you’ve combated that as a black surgeon?
Brian: I would like to see us get to a point where we just get real about what health care disparities are and health care inequities. This is the legacy of racism in this country. It’s about health, poverty, housing, education, employment. Like, there are so many things to unpack and address. Health care is one part, and that’s where I happen to be, you know, an expert in that particular field, but I recognize that what I do in the hospital is not gonna be enough to uplift these communities in need. And like you said, I don’t like to pathologize Chicago either. I’m coming here to help, but I don’t know how to talk about it without being offensive to people that live here, right? Like, who am I to talk about their community? So I’m trying to be sincere about my desire to contribute, to uplift the community without being offensive to the folks that live here and are actually gonna be doing the work for a long time. So I completely agree with you that even I feel like an outsider sometimes in doing this work.
Zach: So then, you know, I think–and I’m really excited, and I’m thankful that you’ve been able to come on the podcast, because I think what really intrigued me about having you on, beyond you just sharing your story and the work that you’ve done and that you do, is around, like, the concept of effective relationships and building relationships with individuals that you may not feel immediately safe with or comfortable with, and I know that that involves a certain level of emotional labor for you, even today, right? I’m curious though, like, if you could give younger professionals any advice about building relationships–and when I say relationships, I’m thinking more like coalitions for your personal and professional development and journey. Like, if you could, like, boil it down to, like, three things, what would they be?
Brian: I would say, first and foremost to young professionals, nothing is worth sacrificing your dignity for acceptance. What I mean is that the papers and the promotions and the titles, like, if you have to leave part of who you are at home, if you have to compromise your integrity and your ethics and your purpose to achieve those goals, those goals aren’t worth it, so do not hand over your dignity for acceptance. That’s one. Two, you need to set your boundaries. If you don’t set your boundaries someone else will set them for you, and you may not like them. And actually I believe that if you set your boundaries, that will lead to greater connectedness with people, not less, because you are respecting who you are and what you stand for. You’re not letting anyone else compromise that for you. And the third thing is just always keep your end goal in mind. As you’re going through life, your profession, like, think about what it is you want to accomplish, where you want to be. If you never lose sight of that, then all that noise and chaos that you encounter on the way, you’ll be able to filter through that and not lose sight of the end objective. So people call it your North Star, your purpose, but I think your end goal, whatever that is, never lose sight of that.
Zach: Man, Dr. Williams, this has been a great conversation. I just gotta thank you again for being a guest on the podcast. Any shout-outs or parting words before we let you go?
Brian: No, Zach. First of all, thank you for–I’m honored that you asked me to be on the show, and I’m glad that we were able to make this happen. And I’m always happy to engage with listeners. They can check out my website, BrianWilliamsMD.com. That’s Brian with an I. I’m pretty active on Twitter at @BHWilliamsMD. But if you do drop me a line, email or direct message, I will get back to you. And you talked about making connections. That’s one way that I have increased my connectivity with the universe. Thanks again.
Zach: Man, thank you so much. All right, y’all, you know what it is. You’ve been listening to Dr. Williams, surgeon, speaker, educator, public servant, man… just overall dope individual. ‘Til next time, this has been Zach. We’ll catch y’all next time. Peace.