The Who and the Why

As I represent the NDA at the many conferences, meetings and dinners hosted by our allies in the promotion of oral health, I’m often asked how a lawyer ended up as Executive Director of the National Dental Association.  It’s understandable. A person with a background in law, politics, urban policy and public administration is not necessarily the intuitive choice for a role like this, unless you understand my “why”.

Following my undergraduate years at Morehouse College, where I was imbued with the history and ongoing relevance of the civil rights movement, I entered Howard University School of Law. There, I was trained in the ways of the advocate and strongly influenced by the legendary Charles Hamilton Houston’s admonition that “a lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.”  It was also there, spurred on by that impressive legacy, that my “why” began to resonate within me. These experiences were transformative, and I have been devoted to expanding equity and access for the disadvantaged, promoting civil rights, and social justice ever since.

As a young attorney, I served as Legislative Counsel to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. My years of political activism earned me a DC Mayoral appointment to manage civil rights enforcement and minority contracting for the Government of the District of Columbia. There, I administered community-based programs for severely disadvantaged communities. I later served in numerous executive and senior management roles in government, and politics, including as Chief of Staff to the Honorable Marion Barry during his years on the D.C. City Council. Following my government service, I entered the nonprofit, philanthropic, and association sectors. Over time, the “why” became a clearly defined manifestation of who I am.

My journey to NDA now seems inevitable, when viewed through a lens of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.  The American health care system is at last undergoing a critical examination of its record. From experimentation on the enslaved to Tuskegee, to Henrietta Lacks, abuses have been egregious and numerous throughout our history. But even as the moment seems ripe for change, setbacks like the recent unsuccessful attempt to include a dental benefit in Medicare prove that enemies to fundamental human rights remain.

There’s a lengthy history to these debates. Victories are rarely won in the first battle. Today, concepts like the social and political determinants of health are taken as standard in health equity discourse. For years, led by luminaries like Dr. Martin Luther King, health equity was the province of only the most courageous of civil rights champions. In 1966, Dr. King famously said that “injustice in health is the most inhuman form of inequality, because it often results in physical death.” He was assassinated two years after uttering those words.

Since its founding in 1913, the National Dental Association has boldly advanced the cause of health equity. As Daniel Dawes, of Morehouse School of Medicine, reminds us in The Political Determinants of Health, health equity has been a central objective in the struggle for emancipation, civil rights and human rights since the inception of this nation.

So, why aren’t we there yet? Frankly, it’s due to a well-funded, coordinated campaign of racial intolerance, and economic exploitation. The situation demands that we find the will to continue this life or death struggle. There is great strength in finding purpose and when people connect their own “who” to their “why”, they find their purpose.  I have found mine anew, in the goals of the National Dental Association.  We must improve the delivery of oral health care in underserved communities; and improve the educational opportunities of minorities underrepresented in the oral health field.  This is health equity in action. However, in the end, we will only achieve it when NDA members, allies and partners connect our collective “who” to our “why” and unify our purpose.  In the fight to bring full access healthcare to those long neglected, this is the only path to victory.


Keith Andrew Perry
Executive Director
National Dental Association


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