Q&A: Dr. LaTedra Collins on the importance of representation

LaTedra M. Collins, D.D.S., loves working with her hands. She got that from both of her grandfathers who were carpenters, often seeing them constructing homes and churches. 

“I became fascinated with mending things,” Dr. Collins said. 

When she participated in a summer program at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, her career ambitions became clearer.

Today, Dr. Collins continues to work with her hands and mend things by bringing dental care to underserved communities in Louisiana. As a 2019-20 participant in the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, she founded Miles of Smiles, a dental nonprofit that provides oral health education, oral cancer screenings and preventive care in the community.

Here, the New Dentist News spoke with Dr. Collins to learn more about her dental career, why Black representation in the field matters, how she navigates adversity, and what advice she would give the next generation of Black dentists.

NDN: What influenced your decision to go into dentistry? 

Dr. Collins: My paternal and maternal grandfathers were carpenters, so I was often on construction sites and became fascinated with mending things and working with my hands. A summer program after my freshman year at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry under the direction of Dr. Todd Ester confirmed my aspirations.  

NDN: In honor of Black History Month, was there a Black dentist whom you looked up to or considered a mentor? 

Dr. Collins: Yes, several in Louisiana. Dr. Frances Wiggins, the late Dr. Alice Williby, and while on the campus of Xavier University of Louisiana, Dr. Jay Dumas and his father.  

NDN: Of the dental workforce, 3.8% are Black. From your perspective, what can organized dentistry and dental professionals do to help increase diversity in the profession? 

Dr. Collins: If you remove graduates from Howard University and Meharry Medical College that number is extremely lower. So, I encourage organized dentistry and professionals to support these institutions by increasing its class size and increase the number of black faculty at other(non-HBCU) dental schools. Secondly, remove race as a barrier. Many black candidates with the same qualifications undergoing the same interview process are often not chosen. Finally, I’d encourage dentists to support programs like the  Student National Dental Association, Undergraduate Student National Dental Association, Diverse Dental Society, and Diversity in Dentistry.  

NDN: What does it mean for you to be Black and working in this field?  

Dr. Collins: I am a dentist who happens to be black. The color of my skin is not a disadvantage.  However, when others focus on my skin color and exclude me from leadership roles and promotions, then we have another problem — racism. I enjoy serving the underserved patient population as I have devoted my career to marginalized individuals.

NDN: As a female Black dentist, what adversities have you faced, and how did you face or navigate those challenges?  

Dr. Collins: There are many stories of minority students who were accepted into dental school but did not finish due to a lack of inclusivity. My greatest adversity occurred after being accepted into dental school and being one of a few people of color out of over 100 students. I’m thankful to God for the relationships that I established and cherish to this day that helped me navigate being a minority.

NDN: Can you tell us about your nonprofit dental organization, Miles of Smiles? 

Dr. Collins: We are a 501(c)(3)based out of Louisiana. Miles of Smiles serves all populations but focuses on children. We provide patient education, prevention, and oral cancer screenings. We are a partner of Well-Ahead Louisiana Seals Smiles, a school-based program aimed at improving children’s oral health across the state. In addition, we will represent the state rep for Oral Health Progress and Equity Network (OPEN). While it has been difficult to grow Miles of Smiles amid the COVID-19 pandemic and two hurricanes that struck southern Louisiana in 2020, we hope to purchase a mobile unit in the future.

NDN: What advice would you give to the next generation of Black dentists?

Dr. Collins: May you find purpose and collaborate with other dentist. There is an old African proverb that says “each one teach one.”

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