Harlem dancer takes on ‘The Call’ to stop racial biases in healthcare

ingrid silva
Dancer Ingrid Silva (left, courtesy of Silva); Actress Corin Wells in “The Call Experiment,” a porject spearheaded by EmpowHER NY and The Bloc (right, screenshot)

Dancer and activist Ingrid Silva is taking on women’s issues and empowering women in the process through her New York City-based organization.

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Silva started her dance journey at the age of 8 and began training in ballet at Dançando Para Não Dançar, a social project in Mangueira. 

“Dance was never actually my dream but I was really excited when my mom mentioned to me about dance auditions,” said Silva. “I’ve always been involved with sports, been swimming since age 3, and joined a professional team. I had to decide between swimming and classical ballet – I ended up choosing ballet because it was really challenging and super fun.”

Silva went on to dance for three more schools in Brazil — Escola de Dança Maria Olenewa, Centro de Movimento Debora Colker and Grupo Corpo — before she sent an audition tape to the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She officially joined the company in January 2008, and currently resides in Riverside.

“It was a really interesting and amazing experience because when I first came to the states, I literally came for dancing,” said Silva. “My teacher came with me for the first month and then after that, I stayed with the school. That’s when my journey started in the states.”

During her time in the United States, Silva not only gained principal roles in a number of performances, but she also gained national recognition for leading the charge for skin-toned ballet shoes for dancers of all races and cultures. Silva has also been seen as a spokesperson for Activia and appearing in a Nike video series called The Common Thread.

Three years ago, Silva founded EmpowHER NY, an organization that centers around educating and giving women a safe space to speak freely about their ideas and experiences. The organization has made global connections with brands and organizations that want to empower women. Silva says that the organization has had events in New York prior to the pandemic, and has also helped women launch their brands and help them find jobs.

“Often we see that women don’t have a place or a seat at the table when they bring ideas, when they want jobs, or when they offer or bring something new, it’s always an issue most of the time,” said Silva. “We’ve been supporting them in every way we can support them, which is really important — it sets the bar and it makes them empowered. And all of these works are free. Most of these women cannot afford [these kinds of services] and for some of them, this is the first time for them stepping out of their comfort zone.”

Silva’s latest project is focused on one thing: exposing racial bias in healthcare. EmpowHer NY teamed up with The Bloc, the New York-based healthcare creative agency, to create a video called The Call Experiment. The video features actress Corin Wells who went undercover making multiple calls to a 24-hour nurse’s health hotline using both a white-coded name and voice and a Black-coded name and voice while describing symptoms for appendicitis.

“I’m really excited that we were also bringing this new project about Black women and how they are treated by hospitals,” said Silva. “That misunderstanding and women, in general, are questioned about their health issues — [doctors] don’t believe it or they just misplace what you say.”

The results found that 77% of “Black” alias calls resulting in a recommendation in an urgent care facility – protocol for minor health issues – whereas her “white” alias resulted in a recommended visit to the ER, the appropriate protocol for any patient with urgent symptoms of appendicitis.

“The Call is a reality that many women of color experience every single day,” said Silva. “We can see as well that the high mortality birth rate is experienced by Black women every day, so that’s a huge issue that we wanted to bring to light and see what changes we can make because it’s really important and people are not heard.”

The video garnered a positive response from the community, with EmpowHer NY and The Bloc winning the Wood Pencil Award from D&AD for The Call. Silva would like more people to see The Call so more awareness can be made for the injustices that Black people face in the healthcare system every day.

“People need to know that these experiences exist and they are important. For instance, back in the day when experiences were happening with black bodies in general, people seemed to think that black people did not feel pain or they are invincible or they are strong,” said Silva. “It’s not real. I feel like with the Health Department to this day, it’s kind of the same thing — they still have this myth and they ended up mistreating so many black women in general. That’s what we wanted to get ahead of it, we need to put a stop to this.”

While this is the first video experiment that EmpowHER NY has put forward, Silva hopes that The Call Experiment can expand further and tackle more women’s issues. Using the results from The Call, EmpowHER NY has started a campaign to collect signatures to petition for mandatory unconscious bias training at medical facilities.

We need to hear these women, we need to understand and respect it, and we need to make a change,” said Silva. “We are collecting signatures to bring to the city eventually, and present them this work to see what we can do. We’re starting in New York because we live here, so that would be our first step.”

To sign the petition, visit change.org or find the link on the EmpowHER website. For more information, visit empowherny.org