According to the American Dental Association, only 3.7% of practicing dentists across the U.S. are African American, but Dr. Deborah Brown stands out even further as CEO of My Community Dental Centers.
For such a distinguished position, Brown did not follow a steady career path. Brown grew up in the inner city of Paterson, New Jersey, and by the time she finished high school, college was not on her radar, she said.
“I was caught up in follow-the-leader … versus trying to be a leader myself,” Brown said. “If I went to college, I wouldn’t be able to hang out with those same friends.”
Her parents, however, pushed her out the door, and wanting what she perceived was a level of independence she wouldn’t find in college, Brown chose the military. In hindsight, it wasn’t a decision she made knowing the implications.
“Ignorance is bliss,” Brown said. “I didn’t know it was going to kick my butt when I got in there,” she said, laughing. “I thought I had one-upped (my parents), and I made a choice that was really going to show me that somebody’s always going to be in charge.”
Brown was enlisted in the U.S. Army for four years and during that time was stationed in South Carolina, Georgia and places as far away as Germany. While she enjoyed the travel, she knew she couldn’t make it a career, mainly because she didn’t like being told what to do.
After four years in the Army, though, the young Brown still didn’t know what direction her life ought to take. Back home in New Jersey, she was bouncing from job to job until she said a lightbulb came on.
Organization: My Community Dental Centers
Position: Chief Executive Officer
Birthplace: Paterson, NJ
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Wife – Cynthia Brown
Business/Community Involvement: Michigan Board of Dentistry member, American College of Health Care Executives member, Michigan Volunteer Registry-Mortuary Assistance Team
Biggest Career Break: When my former mentor and CEO took a chance on me and gave me a dental director position. At that time I did not have any administrative experience. He taught me about the business side of dentistry.
Having avoided it for so long, Brown finally decided to give college a chance. Several people in her family had graduated college and were younger than she was — 27 years old at the time. Once she started attending Rutgers University, Brown realized she could do the work required of her, and in fact excelled at it.
“I started to feel, I guess, ‘good’ about my self,” Brown said. “That first time I made the dean’s list — 27, 28 years old — just opened up a new world for me. I didn’t know I had this in me.”
Her second year in, Brown declared her major as biology. She said she enjoyed science kits, microscopes and similar gadgets as a child, but she didn’t know what she could do in that field of study.
Brown’s mother used a dentist who offered for Brown to shadow him at his office so she could experience his profession.
“He was really gung-ho about dentistry, so I took that opportunity,” Brown said.
Her mother’s dentist ran a small private practice in Paterson and often served underprivileged patients using Medicaid. After shadowing him for a month, Brown impressed him enough that he wrote her a recommendation for dental school.
“It was pretty cool to go and see him interact with these patients. Him not being from Paterson but working there and caring about his patients and wanting to serve the underserved population was pretty cool,” Brown said.
After completing dental school, Brown went into public health dentistry and worked at a multi-branch practice that catered to underserved populations, and she also worked at a federally qualified health center.
Being exposed to an underprivileged community, Brown saw a lot of people who put dentistry last on their lists of priorities. Living paycheck-to-paycheck, many of those patients prioritized food, medication, rent and other necessities before their dental care.
“What’s even more heartbreaking are the children, who can’t bring themselves to the dentist. They have to rely on parents,” Brown said. “If they have a toothache, they’re in so much pain they can’t concentrate in school. They don’t do well on tests, because when you got a toothache … it’s excruciating, and a child with a toothache who’s trying to focus in school and learn — those were the biggest impacts on me, even as a student in dental school.”
Brown said children get their first permanent molar around six years old, but by the time some of the children she took care of were seven, that first molar has so much decay it has to be pulled.
“As a society, we’ve got to figure out a way to stop that from happening,” she said.
Brown, herself, did not see a dentist until she was about six, and by the time she first sat in the dentist’s chair she had four cavities. It’s an occurrence among children that hasn’t changed much today, she said.
“We say first tooth, first birthday is when you should see a dentist,” she said. “That’s still not happening for many reasons.”
The issue of access to care is a serious problem, Brown said, firstly because dentistry is not seen as essential health care by the insurance industry. It’s seen almost as secondary health care and not something that should be a part of every insurance program.
Besides the cosmetic problems of poor dental hygiene, Brown said it also comes with pain and infection that can, and often does, spread to other parts of the body.
When My Community Dental Centers in Michigan put out an online search for an open position as CEO, Brown caught wind of the job but kept ignoring it. She had never visited the Midwest and didn’t have a high opinion of it.
“When I finally clicked on it, when I read the description of what the job entailed, I was like, ‘That’s me. That’s everything I like to do. That’s what I know. That’s what I basically live and breathe every day,’” Brown said.
Brown applied, but she didn’t expect a call back. She didn’t see a lot of people with her skin color at the executive level, she said. Even as a dentist, she was in a hard minority, and the lack of diversity was even more evident at the leadership level.
“Not seeing people like myself in leadership made me not think I could get it,” Brown said. “Plus, I looked at the (MCDC) website, and I didn’t see anyone like me.”
Much to her surprise, MCDC did call her back requesting an interview. Even then, Brown didn’t believe she would get the job, but she later received a call from the chair of the board of directors telling her she got in.
“I was blown away. Then reality set in, and I was like, ‘I’m moving to Michigan,’” Brown said. “I just realized I’ve become a Michigander probably early 2021. My wife and I were like, ‘Yeah, I think we’re Michiganders. We’re going out in the cold and we don’t have jackets on.
“I didn’t have a lot of hopes for getting the position, but I’m glad that I got it and I’m glad that I’m here, and now I can show someone else what they can do,” Brown said.
Brown added MCDC is partnering with Delta Dental Foundation for a project in Detroit where community health workers help patients understand the importance of oral health and connect them to resources to access care for themselves and their children.
“We want the whole family to come to us as their ‘dental home’ so they all can receive care,” Brown said. “I think this project is important. Other parts of health care are starting to use community health workers. Michigan is one of the states that has a community health worker professional organization … so I think it’s going to be a big thing for the future of connecting patients to resources in the community.”