Noticing a void in the dental community and “no true space for Black women in dentistry to have an outlet,” Dr. Sharel Sly created Sistahs in Dentistry. In 2017, the Houston dentist found a way to identify and centralize Black women in dentistry who share unique experiences in the profession.
Sistahs in Dentistry started as a closed Facebook group inviting Black women in dentistry — double minorities in their field — to uplift, support, celebrate and network with each other. In just four years, that community has become a safe haven and has grown to over 3,300 members, including dentists and dental students.
“What I noticed was there was very little representation of ‘us’ in the community; I mean we knew we were out there but had no way of knowing where. If we went to a conference, there might be a few of us speckled throughout the room and every so often you’d give the ‘hey girl heyyyy’ head nod to someone that looked like you.Dr. Sharel S. Sly, Founder, Sistahs in Dentistry and Association of Black Women Dentists
“It can be an isolating feeling, often times, when attending conferences. Now with the advent of the group, there has been a sense of familiarity and friendships created. So when attending a conference, members can coordinate and attend together. There have even been CE courses and conferences for Sistahs in Dentistry members-only, which has been amazing, as the environment created is remarkable,” said the group’s founder.
Evolution is inevitable, and as such Sistahs in Dentistry has evolved to now include the Association of Black Women Dentists, a nonprofit organization (501c3).
“What started as a Facebook group has grown into a sisterhood and so much more. We evolved to hosting conferences, meetups and educational courses where we are no longer just a few in the room, we ARE the room.”Dr. Sharel S. Sly, Founder, Sistahs in Dentistry and Association of Black Women Dentists
How has Sistahs in Dentistry grown as a professional membership for Black women, with a mission to support dentists and students?
In 2021, Dr. Sly continued to build the organization, launching an annual membership component where participants gain access to negotiated group discounts, CE courses, webinars, investment opportunities and more.
“To see the growth over the last four years has been phenomenal I don’t think I can put into words what it feels like to see such greatness,” she said.
Focusing on its mission to empower Black women in dentistry and to garner up collective buying power, Sistahs in Dentistry and the ABWD work to inspire the next generation.
“Through the mentorship program, student participants are paired with doctors and guided into the profession, whereas for many of us who were first generation doctors, we had no idea what to do. It was a lot of bumping our head and making mistakes, for the students we want to eliminate some of those bumps.”Dr. Sharel S. Sly, Founder, Sistahs in Dentistry and Association of Black Women Dentists
Students also use the group to meet one another before even stepping foot on campus so as early as the first day of school they have a connection with someone that looks like them.
Where are Sistahs and Dentistry and the ABWD headed in the future?
As for the future of Sistahs in Dentistry, Dr. Sly will be concentrating her efforts on growing membership, creating partnerships for CE courses and holding annual conferences.
“The biggest success that comes from the events is the environment that is created,” Dr. Sly said.
“Many people don’t understand what it is like to be in a room and feel less likely to raise your hand and feel uncomfortable because you’re the ‘minority’. But when you’re in a room full of your sistahs there’s a sense of ease and excitement that exists.”
Sistahs in Dentistry has established itself as an anchor organization helping black women in dentistry grow both professionally and personally.
How do Sistahs in Dentistry and the Association of Black Women Dentists organization uplift, celebrate, and support their members?
Founding charter member Dr. Karen Luckett said that during her 27 years in practice she has sometimes felt isolated. In the 30-to-50-mile radius of her dental practice in McComb, Mississippi, only 3 of the 12 to 15 dentists are Black females, Dr. Luckett explained.
“There is a difference between a male and female dentist. There is an even greater difference as a Black female dentist. There are unique challenges, and it’s helpful to have others who understand your challenges.”Sistahs in Dentistry Charter Member Dr. Karen Luckett, McComb, Mississippi.
“I’ve been in practice 27 years and out of dental school 30. Sometimes I’ve felt isolated, but this group has opened up so many opportunities for me. I had a small community of colleagues I could reach out to, but now I have a whole community that I would not otherwise have connected with,” said Dr. Luckett.
The practice growth Dr. Luckett has experienced has been notable — including a 25% increase in revenue each year since joining the group. Even more significant, she said, are the meaningful connections she’s made.
“Our profession is stressful and demanding. It helps when you have somewhere you can take your shoes off and talk about it,” said Luckett.
“I’m older in practice, but I’m excited about the opportunity to continue to learn and grow. Sometimes we get stagnant, but my connection to this community has shifted my mindset.”
As a Sistah in Dentistry and member of the Association of Black Women Dentists, Dr. Dana Truesdale has seen exponential growth at her practice in Baltimore. She describes Sistahs in Dentistry as ‘the missing piece’ that unlocked a door and she attributes this success in part to her membership.
“My level of thinking is different, because now I have a team of people with similar experiences,” she said of the national organization that empowers Black women dentists and dental students.
“Some of them have more experiences than I have or are more business savvy, and I’m like a sponge, just soaking up all this new information, applying these things in my practice.”
Dr. Truesdale sums up what Sistahs in Dentistry has done for her professionally, and how she plans to pay it forward.
Regarding professional growth efforts afforded by Sistahs in Dentistry:
“There was a missing piece of ‘How do I get there? Where is the bridge? This organization has just met me where I was, met me on my level. For so long I just needed that door unlocked, and now that door is open and I’m all in.”Sistah in Dentistry member Dr. Dana Truesdale
“What I hope to bring to the table? I hope to recruit people and tell the ladies coming out of dental school: ‘You don’t have to take the scenic route. There’s a road that has been paved by sistahs before you.'”