Celebrating Bold Black Leadership at OIC in Rocky Mount, NC


The PRAPARE Team has been reflecting on all of the leaders (current and past) throughout Black History Month, and their efforts to improve the health and well-being of Black people in their communities as well as nationally. I was fortunate to recently learn about two bold Black leaders, Reuben Blackwell, President and CEO of Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) and Sherri Bryant, Chief Health Operations Officer at OIC during a NACHC’s Health Centers on the Front Lines podcast recorded with Ben Money, Senior Vice President of Public Health Priorities at NACHC. The podcast dialed into their courageous leadership before and during the COVID-19 pandemic (which was absolutely inspiring!). It has always fascinated me to learn what brings people to the health center movement, which is why I reached out to Reuben and Sherri to learn more about what inspires each of them and how they take care of themselves and their teams. 

Reuben Blackwell

When Reuben was introduced to the health center movement, he said, “I was at OIC as the new President and COO. We did not have a medical practice when I joined. OIC students, in the late 90s and early 2000s, were denied healthcare by most local private practices. Before there were discussions of affordable healthcare or universal access, there was a stark disparity between those who held private insurance, Medicaid or were absolutely uninsured. Because our students are mostly Black and poor, many of them faced barriers like transportation and childcare. Most private practices had caps on Medicaid patients and ejected those patients FOR LIFE if they missed three or more appointments. The OIC Board was convinced that the righteous and only action we could take was to start our own medical practice. We became a rural health center which provided more funds to stabilize operations. Consequently, with the help and support of the late Jim Bernstein (the crafter of the modern US rural health framework), the mentoring and financial undergirding of the NC Office of Rural Health and the embrace and guidance of the NC Community Health Center Association, we exist to build and sustain equitable health, economic, education and social infrastructure and institutions. Today, we own and operate three primary care centers, two pharmacies, a behavioral health practice, a dental center, an urgent care that offers imaging and mammography services, two mobile clinics, and an exercise therapy program.”  

Sherri Bryant

With Reuben’s bold leadership and commitment to serving his community, it is not surprising to hear the similarities with Sherri’s journey to OIC and the health center movement. When responding to the same question, Sherri shared that, “the COVID Pandemic brought me to the health center movement. Being a Black female executive navigating different relationships, expectations, and projects daily in a larger health system striving for more diversity and inclusion, the pandemic brought a lot of realization to me of aligning my purpose, passion, and professional capabilities. When you look around at the most critical time and vaccines are finally available and there are clear disparities of access to vaccines, I knew then and began to pray for God’s will and way to be manifested and revealed. Then I joined OIC in August.”   

Their fierce commitment to their community intrigued me to learn more about what inspires Sherri and Reuben. Sherri stated that, “My inspiration comes from many elders that I have been around throughout my life. As I was introduced to the struggles of Black people and how to navigate through systemic racism, that is where I began to lead by example, make small changes, and commit to meeting people and patients where they are.” Reuben shared that he gets his inspiration from “seeing Black people do our best to navigate through systems never designed to serve us much less be led by us. I sat at the feet of elders, as a child, who recounted over and over for me, how they survived. I am continually amazed at the ingenuity that my aunts, uncles, pastors, teachers, church members, community leaders and my own parents created to do the best with what they had. They never had much, but always managed to forge excellence that they passed to me. If they could survive, then I can thrive. That spirit was passed to me and now I share it with everyone in my proximity.”

It’s powerful to hear how their village of elders, families, and community leaders shaped them as individuals and leaders, and it reminded me that as leaders, we must be well-rooted in our purpose while nourishing ourselves and the teams we lead. 

Audre Lorde, a Black lesbian feminist, activist, and writer, once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Her powerful gem of wisdom is even more important as we are still in a global pandemic, racial reckoning, and financial downturn, all while caring for structurally marginalized communities. As change agents and leaders, we must lead by example, and both Reuben and Sherri are being intentional with their self-care as well as ensuring their teams are doing the same. Reuben and Sherri are both prioritizing nourishment of their minds, bodies, and hearts by focusing on eating healthy foods and participating in OIC’s Exercise Therapy Program. Sherri makes time for herself to get a massage every two weeks as well as anchoring mindful practices in her staff meetings and taking the time to build relationships with her team. She reminds them of the importance of family and themselves, and stresses that they can give their all when they are “being intentional to fill themselves back up since we are in the business of providing care to others.” Reuben is a lifelong student and shared he is “currently being intellectually fed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, in her life changing book, The 1619 Project.” He is also being coached to be a more effective CEO to ensure that “my own transformation can hopefully shift our OIC into a more effective organization and community.”

The breadth and depth of the experience between Reuben and Sherri is undeniable as they shared the wisdom they’ve learned in their efforts to improve the health of Black people in their community. Sherri has learned that it is important to “meet people with kindness and to provide education on their level and in their neighborhoods. Many want to do better and be better but just do not know how. Most importantly, having someone that looks like them caring for them really matters.” Over the years, Reuben has learned that, “oppressed people want to be free and unyoked and just need to know how. The impacted, residual and ever-present trauma that racism presents infects everyone. Freedom can be infectious and addictive. I see more people choosing to embrace equity, inclusion and shared prosperity like never before. And that in itself is encouraging and inspiring and life giving for me. In Rocky Mount, Millennials and Gen Zers have formed a dynamic organization that has removed our confederate statue, challenged status quo politics, and are beginning to influence local policy and elections. This Rocky Mount Black Action movement is taking our progress to another level and, I pray, is creating a thirst for institutional equity that will revolutionize eastern North Carolina and help change the South for the better!” 

Sherri and Reuben both personify the African philosophy of “Ubuntu”, which means “I am because we are”. The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said that “ubuntu” can be understood by acknowledging “my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours”. Bold and courageous leaders in the health center movement, like Sherri and Reuben, rise to meet the moment with the knowledge and wisdom of their elders and ancestors to challenge the status quo and to do so within the context of community. Learning more about Sherri and Reuben serves as a powerful reminder for all of us in the health center movement and beyond to celebrate bold and brilliant Black leaders today and everyday since Black History is being made year-round. 

Yuriko de la Cruz

Authors: Reuben Blackwell, Sherri Bryant, and Yuriko de la Cruz 

Questions? Email the PRAPARE Team