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Organization Empowers Communities, Individuals to Celebrate the Skin They Are In


Celebrating the Skin We're In seeks to advocate for health equity through community outreach and education efforts.

Fatuma-Ayaan Rinderknecht, MS, BA, is a fourth-year medical student at University of California San Fransisco School of Medicine and the founder of Celebrating the Skin We're In, an organization striving to educate and empower young adults from underserved communities to protect, care for, and celebrate the skin they are in.

Rinderknecht is passionate about dermatology advocacy work and recently spoke with Dermatology Times® to discuss her organization's efforts to eliminate health disparities and advocate for health equity in the field of dermatology.


Fatuma-Ayaan Rinderknecht, MS, BA: My name is Fatuma-Ayaan Rinderknecht. I'm a fourth-year medical student at UC San Francisco School of Medicine.

Dermatology Times: How did you become involved in dermatology advocacy?

Rinderknecht: So I think to answer that question, I first have to think a little bit about why I went to medical school in the first place. I come from an immigrant background, and a lot of my family came here as immigrants and refugees from Somalia, and that had a really big impact with how they interacted with the health care system. So I went to medical school with the goal of improving health equity, and I was lucky enough to be accepted into the PRIME program at UCSF, and that's a 5-year track for medical students who are interested in caring for underserved populations. I got to work with and learn from a lot of community organizers and advocates through the PRIME program.

Once I decided I was interested in dermatology, I thought about how I could apply my background in community work to the field and did this in a couple of different ways. First was research. Through my 5-year program, I also got my master's [degree], and my master's thesis focused on racial disparities and barriers to care for patients who have hidradenitis suppurativa. I also was able to get involved in policy work. I went to a conference and heard a talk by a doctor at Harvard, Dr. Avery LaChance, on dermatology and health policy, and I was able to work with her and some other dermatologists at Harvard on policy work. We met with a staffer for a representative Ayanna Pressley to talk about the CROWN Act, which is a law meant to end hair discrimination, primarily against people who have textured hair. And we also were able to write an article in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology promoting a bill to cover wigs under Medicare for people who had alopecia. I was able to do these advocacy experiences, which were aimed to help patients at a more macro- level, and also wanted to think about different ways that I could engage with my community directly, and that kind of gave me the idea to start my organization, Celebrating the Skin We're In.

Dermatology Times: What is Celebrating the Skin We're In?

Rinderknecht: Initially, I got the idea for Celebrating the Skin We're In through my research. I learned a lot about racial disparities in dermatology, and I understood that a lot of people from minority communities maybe are less likely to go to a dermatologist or are less familiar with a dermatologist, and I wanted to think about ways that I could ameliorate that and apply my skills in community work.

I created this organization in which we go into high schools and provide information sessions on skin health and sun protection. We have a number of different curricula on acne, eczema, sun protection, skin cancer, hair care, and alopecia. We primarily work in high schools and after-school programs in predominantly minority communities, so we made this curricula with those communities in mind.

Our mission is really to bridge the gap between these communities in the field of dermatology. We also hope to equip the teens that we're working with with the information that they need to take care of their skin and also know when they should go and see a dermatologist. We also try to integrate body positivity and normalizing these super common skin conditions that a lot of them have.

And lastly, we introduce the field of medicine and dermatology and talk a little bit about that to maybe interest some of these students in pursuing any of these things down the road.

Dermatology Times: What work has your organization done to engage with the community?

Rinderknecht: Primarily what we do is go into these high schools and provide these informational sessions, but we also have worked with the city of San Francisco. They have block parties or street fairs over the summer, and we had a booth there, and we basically adapted our curricula into a Jeopardy-style game to provide this information to people of all ages and just engage them on the work that our organization is doing.

Outside of that, we also have an online presence. We have a website which is celebratingtheskinwerein.org where we have a blog, and we post weekly, different articles related to dermatology and skin of color. And then we also have an Instagram account, which is @celebratingourskin, and we similarly post slide decks that are informational about different skin conditions.

Dermatology Times: How can dermatology providers get involved with your organization or implement dermatology advocacy in their work?

Rinderknecht: I think in our organization, specifically, totally welcome dermatology providers or other dermatology-interested medical students in getting in contact with us. Like I said, we have our website, celebratingtheskinwerein.org, and you can reach us via email from that site.

In the next couple months, our goal is to really make our PowerPoints available to anyone who might want them and also have a presentation guide that goes along with these, that way people from other institutions or other areas could access these materials and resources and go into their own communities and and do something similar.

And then I think stepping back from my organization specifically, there are so many ways to implement advocacy in the work that we do as health care providers or as medical students, through research or policy as I had mentioned before, but there are a lot of other ways to directly engage with communities. People have free clinics where people who have limited access to health care could go to those. Some of the street fairs that we've been a part of, they can have free skin exams there. And then lastly, I think a really great resource is patient advocacy groups. There are really many chronic diseases and conditions in dermatology and a lot of patient advocacy groups that have popped out from that. In my work with hidradenitis suppurativa, I got to work with the HS Foundation when I was coming up with my research and engage them on my thoughts on the research and what their thoughts were, and it was really helpful and a great experience. And I know a lot of these organizations like the HS Foundation or [National] Alopecia Areata Foundation, have fundraisers and walks and all sorts of ways that providers or students can get involved. And I think those are other really wonderful ways to continue to advocate for your patients.

Dermatology Times: What are your hopes for the future of your organization and for the field of dermatology?

Rinderknecht: I think ultimately, my hope is that we continue to move forward to a place of health equity where everyone can access care equally.
I think even in the time that I've started medical school, I've seen so many positive changes both in the field of dermatology and in the field of medicine in general in working towards that goal. For example, I see that now, a lot of textbooks are diversifying the images they show so that people with skin of color have conditions, and those are on textbooks that we see now. A lot of institutions now have skin of color curricula in their residency programs. And there's also a lot of skin of color clinics that have come about. I know specifically at UCSF, Dr. Jenna Lester, who is one of my mentors, started to Skin of Color Clinic there, and I believe all the residents are able to rotate through there to learn how to care and treat for those populations.

So I think there are already so many positive changes happening. I hope to be part of those changes and additionally just hope that we can continue to advocate for institutional and policy change that will help dermatology become more accessible to everybody.

As a medical student and someone applying into residency, so this is more focused to my peers, but there is so much emphasis in medical students interested in competitive specialties like dermatology, on research, and I feel that that's so important. And I feel that there are also so many additional ways to pursue your interests in a field or learn more about a field through things like advocacy. I think I just have really enjoyed the experiences that I've been able to have in my work and advocacy and just grateful to have the opportunity to talk more about it.

[Transcript has been edited for clarity.]

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