Meet your speakers
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“I like the idea that VCU is embracing diversity.”
-Jannelle Elam, symposium and participant
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Below are biographies and headshots for our 2022 keynote and workshop presenters.
Deirdre Owens Cooper, Ph.D.
Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens, an award-winning historian and popular public speaker, is the Charles and Linda Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine and Director of the Humanities in Medicine Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Cooper Owens is a proud graduate of two historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the all-women's Bennett College and Clark Atlanta University. She earned her Ph.D. in history at UCLA and has had a number of prestigious fellowships at the University of Virginia, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and as a Big Ten Academic Leadership Fellow. As one of the country's most "acclaimed experts in U.S. history," according to Time Magazine, Cooper Owens is steadily working towards making history more accessible and inspiring for all.
For 30 years, Michelle Browder has been an advocate and activist for the at-risk and marginalized. Her heart is especially tender toward disenfranchised youth. In 2022, she was named USA Today’s woman of the year for Alabama. She noticed that young people needed someone to listen, encourage, and provide a safe space for them. She created a place that immersed students in history, "real talk," spoken word and visual art. This experience birthed an arts-centered diversion program that was used by juvenile detention centers in Alabama and Georgia. In the spring of 2012, Michelle and a group of chaperones took 56 students to Washington, DC to see Attorney Bryan Stevenson argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. The case focused on the constitutionality of youth being sentenced to death in prison. Following this, the I Am More Than Youth Empowerment Initiative launched and expanded into a non-profit that hosted community conversations, arts-centered programs for schools and youth-led conferences.
Michelle owns and operates More Than Tours, a social enterprise that provides educational and interactive tours to students and tourists exposing the rich and sometimes haunting history of Montgomery, Alabama.
Holly Alford is the VCUarts Director of Inclusion and Equity. She works directly with the dean of VCUarts, and serves as a liaison to the vice president for inclusive excellence at VCU. In her role, Alford strives to ensure that a diversity of cultures, views and experiences are fostered by the environment of VCUarts and our greater VCU community. Alford earner her MFA in theatre – costume design from VCUarts, her Associate of Applied Science degree in fashion from the Fashion Institute of Technology, and her Bachelor’s degree in theatre from the University of Virginia.
P. Muzi Branch, MAE
A native of Richmond, Virginia, Philip Muzi Branch attended Virginia Commonwealth University where he received both his Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree and his Master of Art Education Degree. Branch is Visual artist, musician and arts administrator. He focuses on African American culture in his award-winning paintings. He plays bass guitar for the internationally acclaimed group Plunky and Oneness and is currently serving as Director of Arts in Healthcare at VCU Health.
Exhibitions include PANAFEST Festival in Ghana, West Africa; The African American Museum of Dallas Texas; The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia; The Ohio History Connection Museum;The Banneker Douglas Museum in Annapolis, Maryland; and the Harrison Museum of African American Culture in Roanoke, Virginia. His work is a part of the permanent collection of Truist Bank, Richmond Community Hospital, Lynchburg College, The African American Museum of Dallas Texas, First Market Bank, The Medical College of Virginia, and many private collectors.
Jeremy Hoffman, Ph.D.
Dr. Jeremy Hoffman is the David and Jane Cohn Scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia and Affiliate Faculty in the L. Douglas Wilder School and the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Hoffman connects audiences to their changing planet through participatory environmental research and interactive, hands-on, and immersive experiences, earning recognition through his research and work being featured in the New York Times, National Geographic, The Washington Post, as well as being selected as the Chapter Lead for the Southeast Region in the Fifth National Climate Assessment, one of Style Weekly Richmond's Top 40 Under 40 in 2019, one of the Grist 50 Fixers for 2020, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2021.
Meera Pahuja, MD
Dr. Pahuja became passionate about social justice and palliative care working in South Africa with patients living with HIV and extremely drug resistant TB. Here in the US, she is director for the Patient, Physician, & Society longitudinal course for all first and second-year medical students. The course is focused on professional identity formation and social medicine, covering topics such as: social determinants of health/health disparities, cultural humility, caring for the dying patient, medical ethics, advocacy, and systemic racism. In the community, Dr. Pahuja serves as Board Secretary of the Virginia League of Planned Parenthood and is on the Board of Trustees for the Collegiate School.
Carlos Smith, DDS, MDiv, FACD
Dr. Carlos Smith is an emerging and gifted communicator across multiple disciplines. Smith is the inaugural Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the Director of Ethics Curriculum and Associate Professor in the Department of Dental Public Health and Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry.
He earned his Doctor in Dental Surgery from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and his Master of Divinity, with a concentration in Theology and Ethics, from Duke Divinity School. He began his teaching career in the Department of General Practice in September 2015 after nearly a decade in both public health dentistry and private practice in North Carolina.