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How the Black Panther’s Death Inspired the Work of this MU Alumna

Learn how this Millersville graduate helped to save 18 lives through a drive-through colon cancer screening during the pandemic.

Armenta Washington ’85 is an accomplished public health worker with a keen eye on meeting the unique healthcare needs of her local community in Philadelphia. Today, she serves as the senior research coordinator with Abramson Cancer Center – Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and uses her skills to build community partnerships with their Office of Diversity and Outreach.

Armenta Washington at the drive-through Fecal Immunochemical Test event.

She shines in both roles, and nothing makes that more evident than one of her most recent accolades. Washington was selected as Philly Magazine’s BeWellPhilly 2021 Health Hero Challenge winner for creating a drive-through Fecal Immunochemical Test service at a church in Philadelphia. The test helped to screen at-risk community members for signs of colorectal cancer in a convenient, private and efficient manner during a pandemic. Participants could pick up a kit, take it home, administer it and then return it to the appropriate medical facility – all free of charge.

Washington got news of the win when she stepped into her office and was greeted by an oversized check and balloons. “It was a huge honor,” shares Washington. Of course, this is just one of the many impactful healthcare initiatives Washington has been a part of. Outside of her job and community work, she serves as a member of the Penn Center for AIDS Research – Community Advisory Board, where she is the co-chair of the Black Men’s Health Initiative.

The BeWellPhilly award came with a prize of $15,000 that Washington could award to the charity of her choice. It didn’t take her long to make up her mind. The money, she decided, would go to Frontline Dads. This Philadelphia nonprofit aims to facilitate the intellectual, emotional, spiritual and cultural development of African American men and vulnerable youth by providing transformative programming to empower them.

Reuben Jones, the founder of Frontline Dads Inc., is a longtime friend of Washington, and Washington serves on the organization’s Board of Trustees. “When I had the opportunity to be awarded and to select a charity to receive the money, I didn’t hesitate to choose Frontline Dads,” shares Washington. “I chose them because I know the impact that Reuben is having. All that money is going to the services that benefit the community.”

MAKING LIFELONG FRIENDS

Many years before Washington and Jones worked together, they studied together. While Washington was studying at Millersville, she met Jones, a fellow psychology major at Millersville University in the 1980s.

Millersville was a “whole new world” for Jones. “I was just a kid from North Philadelphia,” he explains. “It wasn’t a pleasant environment, so going to Millersville was like a culture shock to me.”

Washington shares that she ended up at Millersville thanks to the urging of a friend. “She said if we took placement tests, we could start taking classes.” Intrigued, Washington signed up and eventually settled on a psychology major, citing her curiosity about the subject. “I have always been fascinated by human behavior,” says Washington.

Reuben Jones (left) poses for a photo with Armenta.

The pair recounted many memories about their time together at the ’Ville. “We had a great time,” she says. “We had a great social life . . . there was a very small Black population of students, but we were very close. We were like family because we had no choice on a campus that was predominantly white.”

The two also have another shared connection: They were both impacted by the life, work and legacy of the late Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El, a professor emerita of psychology and African American Studies at the University. “Dr. Smith had a huge impact on me,” shares Washington. “Rita told students to be unapologetically Black. She knew if you had a need financially, and she would employ you to do something for a few dollars just to make sure you had the money.” Since Smith-Wade-El’s passing, many others have shared similar stories of her kindness.

Jones echoes those sentiments, saying, “I [worked] in the psych department with Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El. She was a Black professor who brought all this culture and energy to the campus that we didn’t have before. She was highly revered.” For both, Smith-Wade-El was an inspiration. Jones says, “Dr. Smith [was one of the most positive influences from my time at MU.]”

WORKING TOGETHER

The pair carried the lessons they learned at Millersville and from Dr. Smith-Wade-El with them into their lives postgraduation. Eventually, it led them both right back to North Philadelphia. “When Armenta first told me about the [drive-through colorectal cancer screening], I thought it was brilliant,” says Jones. “I know [from] talking with Black men every day that there is a stigma about going to get checked for colon cancer. And we’re losing way too many of them as a result. For [Armenta] to be that courageous and use her social capital to save those lives . . . is beautiful.”

Those tests have gone a long way to improving the health of the Philadelphia community. “To date, we have registered 553 participants and have saved 18 lives because of these tests. Eighteen people have been identified with a presence of blood in their colons,” shares Washington. Before this, most similar screenings had a return rate of around 10%–15%. “We had an 80.5% return rate. This has never been seen before.”

Her team made another crucial decision that contributed to the event’s success: They staffed the event with African American medical practitioners. “We have them see people that are like them, that are trusted, that can talk to them and assure them that they are doing the right thing. This is one of the most preventable cancers.”

The inspiration for the screening, Washington says, came from an unusual source: On August 28, 2020, actor Chadwick Boseman, who famously portrayed the Black Panther, passed away at age 43 due to colon cancer. On the day of his passing, Washington received a phone call from a local church. “They said, ‘If the Black Panther can die, all of us can die.’”

According to cancer.org, colorectal cancer also disproportionately affects the Black community. African Americans are about 20% more likely to get colorectal cancer and about 40% more likely to die from it than most other groups.

In response, Washington and the team at Penn Medicine partnered with Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church and Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia to create the drive-through cancer screening clinic held in October 2020. “People were very isolated,” shares Washington. “They would go to drive-through clinics just for human interaction.” So far, they have hosted seven similar events, with plans to expand and adapt the model elsewhere throughout the country, potentially saving many more lives.

There is a lot of work to be done in the Philadelphia communities that both Washington and Jones love so much, but one thing is certain: They’ll have each other for support. “Had it not been for someone taking a chance on me, I would not be sitting here today,” shares Washington. This, she says, is her way of giving back. And while she’s gone on to rack up an impressive number of accolades and accomplishments since her time at MU, Washington says the start of her success began at Millersville. “Graduating from Millersville was the start of my proudest accomplishments.”

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