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A White Girl Grows in Philadelphia

I grew up with my older sister and our mother in a fourth-floor walk-up in Center City, Philadelphia. Most of our immediate neighbors were gay and white, but Center City, like all of the city’s neighborhoods, abutted a diverse range of cultures, including an Irish Catholic neighborhood and a black neighborhood. South of the black neighborhood was a bastion of Italian-Americans–the home of Rocky and open-air markets. Fanning out from Center City were enclaves of African-Americans in West and North Philadelphia; Jewish, Polish, Puerto Rican, Chinese and Ukrainian neighborhoods; and several historic and hippie areas.

Philadelphia High School for Girls, one of the preeminent public schools in the city, drew girls from every neighborhood. My school was 38% black, reflecting the city’s demographic makeup at the time. Among its distinguished alumni were university presidents, judges, ambassadors, composers and scientists of every racial and ethnic designation. Attending Girls’ High set me on a path to amazing higher-education opportunities.

Philadelphia was nor is perfect, and neither am I. But being a city kid, engaged in daily interactions with a wide range of cultures, races, religions and lifestyles, formed a sense of what feels right. And what feels right to me is diversity.

Yet I live and work as a physician in a suburban California setting–probably as distant an environment from my childhood as if I had set up practice in the tundra. Many years ago, I chose to work at a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. I provide care at a top-notch facility whose motto is “Serving those who served.” Many of my patients would have, for decades, fallen through the cracks of the U.S. health-care system due to socioeconomic disadvantages were it not for VA hospitals. Providing care to those who need it feels right to me.

But a core reason I chose to work within the VA system–a reason never openly discussed because our own race relations are, sadly, rarely part of conversations–is that, despite the demographics of northern suburban California, we have a substantial number of black patients and staff. Our hospital leadership includes inspiring black men and women. The federal government employs a diverse workforce to care for a diverse population and celebrates that diversity. A contingent of us–gay, straight and all else–marched in the San Francisco Pride Parade behind our hospital’s banner. The diversity of my hometown of Philadelphia and in its public schools shaped me. And though, like my hometown, like me, and like our nation, the VA isn’t perfect, the diversity of the VA hospital is why it feels right to me.

Audrey Shafer
Palo Alto, California


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