This Woman Is Trying to Change the Face of Medicine

Storyteller Crystal Emery will speak at TEDx Beacon Street on Saturday.

Crystal Emery

Crystal Emery/Photo courtesy of URU The Right To Be, Inc.

You can ask Crystal Emery what she does, but don’t expect a simple answer.

“I utilize theater, film, and publications to address social justice issues,” she says. “I set out to tell the stories that struck my heart.”

Indeed, telling stories, in whatever medium intrigues her, is what Emery does best. She’s put out documentaries, articles, essays, books, and plays on topics ranging from racism in healthcare to environmental stewardship. And on Saturday, she’ll take the stage in Boston to tell yet another story: her own.

Emery, founder of the non-profit URU the Right to Be, is speaking at TEDx Beacon Street about “the intersection of race, gender, and disability”—a cross-section she knows well. Emery has a type of muscular dystrophy that leads to paralysis, and she now uses a wheelchair.

“I experience a lot of biases. I just never know which one,” Emery says. “It can be race, because I’m black; it can be gender, because I’m a woman; or it can be disability. What they don’t expect is to have an intelligent person.”

Even a passing glance at her library of work, however, illustrates just how wrong that assumption is.

Most recently, Emery is behind an Oscar-qualifying documentary titled Black Women in Medicine. She’s using the film, and her broader Changing the Face of Medicine initiative, to smash the paradigm of what doctors look like, inviting diversity into a field traditionally dominated by white men—a field where black women make up only 2 percent of the doctor workforce.

“It’s about black women in medicine, but I believe that it transcends medicine given the plight in America,” Emery says. “It’s about the triumph of the human spirit. I met some phenomenal women, and my heart was moved to tell their story. But in telling their story, I’m also telling the American dream.”

Emery says her personal experience with the medical system wasn’t the inspiration for the film, but allows that her life has given her a unique perspective on storytelling—whether it’s the tale of black female doctors, a couple in love, or her own life.

“The best work is work that has been rooted in an extreme experience, either extreme pain or extreme joy. When you read a story by an author that just had a great love affair, you can feel it in what they write. And then when you read a story by someone who has experienced such pain in their soul, that touches you,” she says. “[My experience] has given me an unusual perch in looking at the human experience. It makes me more open to the humanity in everyone.”

Hear Emery speak at TEDx Beacon Street. Free, 11/19, 2:30 p.m. The Lincoln School, 19 Kennard Road, Brookline. Register at