Billy Thomas, M.D., Renie Rule honored by Just Communities


From left, Estella Morris, Renie Rule and Billy Thomas, M.D., UAMS vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, received Biltz Awards. Ruth Shepherd, right, is the executive director of Just Communities of Arkansas.

Feb. 1, 2013 | UAMS physician Billy Thomas is continually working to get people to reach out to each other across cultural lines. On Jan. 31, Just Communities of Arkansas at its annual Gathering of Friends dinner reached out to give him a Father Joseph H. Biltz Award.

Thomas, M.D., a neonatologist, is the UAMS vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion and heads up the university’s Center for Diversity Affairs (CDA).

The Biltz awards recognize individuals or groups working for positive social change.

“It’s a great honor and it’s certainly gratifying that people are aware of us and what we’re doing, especially inside such a large institution and when our efforts are targeted at work force development,” Thomas said.

CDA’s focus is on achieving the goals of diversity, inclusion, equity and cultural competence.

“The outcome is a cadre of health care workers who are more open and wiser about the diversity of patients that they are trained to care for,” Thomas said. “Our job is to accept, promote and embrace diversity so that we as a society may reap the benefits in the future.”

Just Communities also honored Renie Rule and Estella Morris, Ph.D., with Biltz awards.

Renie Rule, executive director of development for the UAMS College of Medicine, helped found the Paws in Prison program, which allows Arkansas prison inmates with good records to train dogs for adoption that otherwise will be euthanized. Morris, program manager of the Comprehensive Homeless Center at the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, was honored for her work with homeless veterans.

At UAMS, people of more than 80 different nationalities work, study or teach on the UAMS campus. But diversity is not just about racial and ethnic backgrounds, Thomas said. Diversity can include personalities, learning styles and life experiences, which also can enrich education.

“Inclusion is creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable,” Thomas said. “Not just our foreign nationals, but all of our in-state students need to feel welcomed.”

One way the CDA has tried to do that is by offering, along with community partners,  summer enrichment programs for students in kindergarten through college, particularly from minority groups, to show them the possibilities of a career in health care.

“We rely on community partners to find students and help us in our various activities,” he said. “Our enrichment programs are one of those connections.”

To promote equity, the center reviews student admissions to ensure disadvantaged students with academic potential are not excluded and also invests in student support services to help students in academic distress.

UAMS has a number of on-going initiatives directed at increasing cultural competency, including revising curricula and training providers to be more culturally sensitive and aware.

A native of Tyronza, Thomas was the 11th of 12 children in his family. He was admitted as a medical student to UAMS in 1976. After graduation he completed a residency in pediatrics at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and a fellowship in neonatology in Cleveland. Thomas returned years later to teach neonatalogy at UAMS and do lab research at UAMS. Since 1999, he has led the CDA, formerly the Office of Minority Affairs.

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