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Community-based experiences remain the touchstone of Dr. Wright’s career

July 1, 2021

The son of a social worker and police officer, Dr. Wright's career has been defined by his desire to serve.When Joseph L. Wright, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, joined the AAP Board of Directors in January 2020, he predicted a watershed moment for the organization.

He had no idea how prophetic those words were.

Less than two months after his installation, the country faced the worst public health crisis in a century, and the AAP assumed the task of guiding its members through the pandemic. A national reckoning on racism soon followed as the virus and murder of George Floyd by a police officer laid bare the inequities communities of color endured.

“The accelerant of the last 12 months has been like nothing I've seen,” Dr. Wright said. “The nimbleness with which the organization has responded in the past year has been truly remarkable.”

The Academy’s desire and ability to tackle the difficult issues served as a catalyst for Dr. Wright’s decision to accept the nomination for AAP president-elect.

“You really can't ever predict when it's your time,” he said. “It was really just the confluence of events ... in the world, in the organization and in my life.”

A nationally known expert in pediatric emergency medicine who has won two career achievement awards from the Academy, Dr. Wright is senior vice president and chief medical officer of Capital Region Health within the University of Maryland (UM) Medical System and a professor of health policy at the UM School of Public Health.

Guiding forces

Dr. Wright’s career has been defined by his desire to serve, whether as a community pediatrician in his native Brooklyn, N.Y., or in guiding the AAP’s equity, diversity and inclusion efforts.

“I am the son of two civil servants, so my frame of reference has always been service to the community,” he said.

After graduating from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., he enrolled at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. It was a break from the family tradition of civil service — his mother was a social worker, while his father, brother and several uncles were police officers. Yet, Dr. Wright saw the decision as a way to help the community.

He completed his pediatric residency at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., and joined the National Health Service Corps, agreeing to practice in a health professional shortage area.

He was assigned to a clinic in Brooklyn just around the corner from his great-grandmother. As he cared for the kids of kids he had known growing up, Dr. Wright saw the value of community pediatrics and the difference a stable medical home could make.

“It was very fortifying and validating … those four years of primary care practice remain the touchstone of my professional life and have influenced my perspective on everything that has occurred since,” he said.

Leadership track

After completing a fellowship in emergency medicine and earning a master’s degree of public health in administrative medicine from George Washington University, Dr. Wright began working as academic faculty at Children's National. He rose through the ranks to become a senior vice president responsible for shaping the organization’s advocacy mission, public policy positions and community partnerships.

Dr. Wright left Children's National in 2014 to take a position as professor and chair of pediatrics at the Howard University College of Medicine, a role he held until 2018.

He has been an AAP member since 1987. He served as chair of the Committee on Pediatric Emergency Medicine and the Task Force on Addressing Bias and Discrimination. He also helped shape the policy statement The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health.

A year after the policy statement’s release, the Academy acknowledged its own troubling past and apologized to Roland B. Scott, M.D., FAAP, and Alonzo deGrate Smith, M.D., FAAP, who initially were denied membership in 1939 because they were Black. Dr. Wright made the apology call to the Scott family and Howard University, a meaningful moment given he met Dr. Scott as an intern and later sat at his same desk as pediatrics chair at Howard.

“I could not be more proud than to be a part of an organization that is authentically acting on its promise of health equity and transparently leading organized medicine through truth, reconciliation and transformation (,” he said.

Dr. Wright says he will bring the same honesty and transformation to the presidency if elected. In addition to pushing for health care equity, he will advocate for the National Pediatric Readiness Project, a collaboration with the federal Emergency Medical Services for Children program. The project aims to ensure optimal emergency care for children, 83% of whom initially present in non-pediatric settings.

He also wants to ensure members are prepared for their patients’ post-pandemic needs, as well as their own.

“We don't know the outcomes yet,” he said, “but I do know the Academy is going to have to step up in this space, for kids and families and the people who take care of them.”

Family traditions

Dr. Wright's family celebrated Mother's Day at a brunch in Baltimore. From left: Dr. Wright's son Christopher with fiancé, Camille; Dr. Wright's wife, Frances; daughter-in-law Julia, who is married to son Justin (foreground); and Dr. Wright.

In his free time, Dr. Wright and his wife, Frances, a pediatric nurse practitioner, enjoy traveling and spending time with their two adult sons, Justin and Christopher. The family often visits Hilton Head, S.C., where Dr. Wright enjoys researching and reconnecting with his family’s sea island roots.

He is a fifth-generation direct descendant of the nation’s first freed Africans, who were liberated via military order in April 1862, eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Archival documents and records revealed that his great-great-grandfather had been enslaved on a plantation called Rose Hill from which he escaped to Hilton Head Island in November 1861. He was among the leaders of the country’s first self-governing town of freedmen, Mitchelville, where he was a deacon in the historic First African Baptist Church.

His grandparents later moved north in the Great Migration, spurred by the lack of opportunities and legalized discrimination against the descendants of formerly enslaved people in the Jim Crow south. They took the family’s belief in education, equity and public service with them.

Nearly a century later, the same values have been the foundation of Dr. Wright’s career.

“It's a divinely driven destiny,” he said. “If someone were to tell me my legacy would be connecting with the lived experience and hidden history of my ancestors, I'm totally comfortable with that.”

Voting will take place from Aug. 25 to Sept. 8. The winner will serve as AAP president in 2023.

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