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Lessons in Resilience

Dec 14, 2020

PERCEPTIONS DO NOT drive Loyce LaShawndra Pace '99, but they matter.

When filling out her Stanford application, Pace did not include that she was a runner. She could have. She was fast on the track and earned the right to trumpet her achievements. But she didn't.

"I didn't want anyone to accuse me of getting in based on that," Pace said. "I was almost ashamed of that as a possibility." 

Instead, Pace walked on to the Stanford track and field team and by her senior year was elected team captain by her peers as the program rose to national prominence. Today, Pace is president and executive director of the Global Health Council in Washington, D.C. An expert in health policy, she has the ear of Congress, the World Health Organization -- and the President-elect. 

On November 9, Pace was among 13 named to Joe Biden's transition team as a member of his COVID-19 advisory board. The group's task is to create a plan to lessen the impact of the pandemic by protecting at-risk populations and ensuring that vaccines are effective and efficiently distributed.

"The rates are shocking and terrible across the board, but especially in communities of color," Pace said. "When you look at the current data, Blacks are dying at twice the rate of whites in this country. That's just unconscionable, not to mention the disproportionate impact the disease is having on Latinx and indigenous communities. 

"Unfortunately, it's not surprising. If we learned nothing by all this, it's that we absolutely need to close these gaps and solve the problem of inequity."

Initially, Pace was the only non-physician on the task force and sometimes is assumed to be "Dr. Pace." She laughs and might respond with, "thank you for the promotion." But, it is her uniqueness that provides a crucial dimension. 

"I am someone people might be able to relate to differently," she said. "I'm a lay voice. I can tell people what they need to hear."

Said former Stanford women's coach Beth Alford-Sullivan, "It's not a surprise that she would be selected for this role, because she clearly demonstrated strong leadership when she was a member of the team."
 
* * * 
 

LaShawndra Pace, Stanford track and field captain, 1999.

HOW DID PACE get to this point? Let's start with a name. As the story goes, LaShawndra's grandmother was transfixed by a story she heard on the radio about a girl whose name was understood to be Loyce. She thought the heroine was "a precocious little girl," in her grandmother's words, and liked that about her. She remembered it when it came time to have a baby of her own.

As a Black woman, she was barred from the hospital. Instead, she gave birth in her rural Tennessee home to a daughter, Loyce. She applied for a birth certificate through the mail. Imagine her surprise upon receiving the document. The name was changed to 'Lois.'

Administrators thought the name was wrong – determining the mother must have been illiterate, a racially-charged assumption – and "corrected" the name to Lois, which is what the birth certificate reads and how she has been known ever since.

The "Loyce" in LaShawndra's name was, in essence, a correction of a correction. Though known as LaShawndra to family and friends, Loyce became her professional name in honor of her mother and grandmother. It's a statement.

LaShawndra sees some of herself in her mother, who joined nine other seniors to integrate Fayette County High School (now Fayette-Ware) from the Black trade school in Somerville. She wanted to make sure a Black girl in the South could get the best education, even as harassment and bullying caused five of them to drop out before the end of the school year.

"She was very determined," LaShawndra said. "That's how I came up, being very determined about pushing those boundaries and using education as a lever."

Pace proudly describes herself as a "resilient daughter of the inner city." It is an important part of her story, but personal and sometimes troubling. LaShawndra was largely raised by her mother and aunt in an unincorporated section of Los Angeles between Inglewood and Watts, during an era of gang wars and a crack epidemic. 

"Growing up in the 80s, it was all the things it seemed it was," Pace said. "There were definitely shootings, some that took the lives of friends. There were metal detectors at schools. I didn't want to live that way." 

A difficult home life, no matter the environment, can make or break a child. But, somehow, building blocks, such as the value of education and health, were pulled from the mire of violence and abandonment.     

"It dawned on me in my 40s how much that can really shape you," she said. "At the time, we all just managed it, because we had to. That's where I got this idea that I'm resilient, because you just have to push through."
 
* * * 
 

LaSHAWNDRA'S COACH with the Los Angeles Jets, a national power in youth club track, was Booker T. Woods. Coaches and teachers often can sense if children are going through trauma. Maybe they're quiet, detached, or alone. A no-nonsense coach to most, Woods seemed to know what LaShawndra needed and guided her with a firm, but compassionate hand. 

Woods, a volunteer coach, included LaShawndra in his daily trek through L.A. in a big pickup truck, picking up kids along the way to bring them to practice and dropping them off one by one at home afterward. 

Pace loved to run, especially with the inspiration of extremely talented teammates such as Obea Moore, who became a youth and high school legend in the 400 and still is treated with reverence in the Southland. Under Woods, and in his environment of excellence, LaShawndra grew in confidence to a degree that it hardly has wavered.  

"He saved my life," she says. 

Pace excelled, winning a national 400-meter title for 10-year-olds with a time of just over 58 seconds –excellent even for high schoolers – and splitting a relay in 57. 

"I was planning on going to the Olympics," Pace said. "That was my goal growing up. To this day, my poor coach is probably disappointed."

Lois tried to get her daughter out of the neighborhood and into the best possible schools. LaShawndra spent an hour each morning on the bus to junior high in the San Fernando Valley. One day, a teacher who saw LaShawndra's potential approached with information about a Massachusetts boarding school, Phillips Academy in Andover. The highly-selective school , which boasts both presidents Bush as alums, was recruiting in the area. 

Recognizing the lifechanging opportunity, LaShawndra clutched the pamphlets on the long return trip across town, and was intrigued. After testing and interviews, 13-year-old Pace, with academic and athletic scholarships in hand, headed across the country. 

"Andover was utopia for me," Pace said.

Though she still competed and did well, academics were her focus now. The only instance she truly felt "in the wrong place," was during the Rodney King riots of 1992. The epicenter of the uprising took place at Normandie and Florence, about a mile from where Pace grew up. Three thousand miles away, Pace watched on TV surrounded by those who couldn't relate.

When Pace came to Stanford, Vin Lananna was in his fourth season as Stanford's Director of Track and Field and in the midst of reshaping the program into a national power. The Angell Field track was renovated and the women's program was becoming fully funded after being limited to only five scholarships for many years. The lack of scholarships made walk-ons necessary to fill the roster, and gave Pace an opportunity. 

"She came in right at the time, when everything started rolling," said Lananna, now Director of Track and Field and Cross Country/Associate Athletics Director for Administration at University of Virginia. "We were just beginning to turn the corner and really create a culture of excellence. LaShawndra and some of her teammates really were the backbone of developing that culture."

Pace was a versatile performer. She specialized in the 800 (her best time was 2:09.22), but had the speed for the 400, and 4x400 and distance medley relays, and range for an occasional 1,500. She was willing to do whatever was asked, and the first to offer support to a teammate when something went wrong. 

"Right from the beginning, she was absolutely fun and engaging, but also reserved and a planner, someone who was going to plan how to make herself better and be committed to making herself great," said Alford-Sullivan, now Director of Track and Field and Cross Country at Tennessee. 

Pace expected Stanford to be an easier adjustment than Andover, but instead felt lost. Her demanding academic load did not exactly complement track and her work at jobs around campus.
 
* * * 
 

A HUMAN BIOLOGY major, Pace never wanted to define herself as an athlete, yet was unsure where her future would lead. A direction began to take shape unknowingly when she attended seminar in health policy. Rather than be attracted, she was appalled at the brokenness of the healthcare system and questioned her place in it.

A direction began to emerge after graduation. Pace felt called overseas and found an ideal blend of interests in a teaching position at a medical school in Japan. After a year, she finally returned to her Los Angeles roots and found a home in community public health. It was the community engagement and hands-on work that drew her in. 

"I love the idea of being a conduit, to deal with real people affected by real things," Pace said. 

Global positions with the American Cancer Society and Livestrong followed and Pace learned four languages – French, Spanish, Japanese, and Wolof (spoken in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania).

When she was a girl, LaShawndra used to give money or food to the homeless people on the side of the road. As much as she wanted to give something to everybody, her mother cautioned, "You can't stop and help everyone."

Now, with Biden's team, that's exactly what she's trying to do. 

"We're very much looking at this question of equity," Pace said. "It has to involve ensuring that communities of color and other high-risk or at-risk populations have access to health care services like treatment, tests, and a vaccine. There's a real recognition that it has to happen. We cannot leave anyone behind."

The fear in vaccine distribution is that those on the margins will be the last in line. 

"That would be terrible," Pace said. "No one wants that. We're expressly working toward preventing that type of scenario."

Her job, she feels, is to advocate for people of color. 

"It's not only people in this country, but it's about black and brown people around the world who are at a disadvantage when it comes to COVID-19 response," Pace said. "I'm also mindful of gender and the impact on women -- on the frontlines as health professionals, or facing increased rates of gender-based violence because women are stuck at home with abusers."

Pace feels there is an absolute connection between health care and human rights. That was her graduate school focus at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and through this lens, Pace said:

"I hope this experience is really teaching all of us a lot more about who we are and where we are. America as a country has been lifted up as this model and beacon of sorts, but that's been called into question, given the political climate in which we find ourselves. It's been especially poignant this past year. 

"The world watched us fail. That's not meant to be a political statement, it's a fact. Other countries have floundered, surely, but we have demonstrated to people around the world how not to do this. That's incredibly surprising and should be enormously humbling." 

Pace is encouraged by the way most of the world has come together during the pandemic, with nations combining on clinical trials and using shared resources to create the vaccine. However, her biggest concern remains here.

"I worry a lot about the people who are left further behind," she said. "They really need us to come through for them." 

At Stanford, Pace sometimes took the baton on a relay with ground to make up. Those moments fueled her determination and provide a metaphor for challenges she faces today. The difference is, the stakes are higher. 

"This is everyone's worst nightmare," she said. "But I still believe in our institutions," including science and public health. But people, in Pace's eyes, are important and must be part of the equation. 

"I have a lot of faith in us," she said. 

 

Lead photo (left to right): Heather Miller, LaShawndra Pace, Danielle Spurlock, Cynthia Morman Muller.