Leslie Grant studied speech-language pathology at Sargent before transitioning into a career in dentistry, where she became a leader in the field. Photo by Shawn Hubbard

On August 7, 1962, four black men waded into the whites-only Pullen Park pool in Raleigh, N.C. Their “swim-in” was in protest of the state’s segregation. Rather than integrate the public pool in response, the authorities closed it; then, reportedly, pumped it full of concrete.

Like many African American North Carolinians of her generation, Leslie E. Grant (’76)—just eight years old in 1962—didn’t learn to swim as a child.

“My early childhood was spent in a racially segregated society,” says Grant, who was born in Charlotte in a segregated hospital. Her parents did what they could to shield her from that racism and to surround their daughter with joy: she went to school with friends, played with neighbors. Her neighborhood was segregated, she says, but it had a “diversity and richness: culturally, socially, economically.”

Grant’s family was solidly middle class—her father was a physician and her mother a teacher. “Everyone since emancipation in my family has gone to college,” says Grant, “which meant that my grandmother’s parents went to college.”

That history, of being privileged with educational opportunity and affected by discrimination, is central to understanding Grant’s journey: since graduating from college, she has put her professional achievements—first as a speech pathologist, then as a dentist—to work to fight inequality, especially in healthcare.

“Having grown up in a community where people had differing levels of opportunity and education in their families, I recognize I was fortunate,” she says. “I believe there are obligations and responsibilities with the opportunities I had.”

In a 40-year career, Grant has always put her role as a clinician first, but she’s also influenced policy and practice at the state and federal levels, including as president of the National Dental Association. As the chief dental officer for Maryland’s dental board, she participated in a working group that preceded the state’s drug-monitoring program. She’s given her time to more than 20 nonprofit and advocacy organizations, providing free healthcare to people who are homeless and to families in El Salvador, and serving on numerous boards, including the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County and the DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement (formerly the DentaQuest Foundation).

“She is a vocal and forceful advocate for equitable access to oral healthcare and access to care,” says Michael Monopoli, executive director of grant-making strategy at the DentaQuest Partnership.

From Speech to Dentistry

As a kid—first in Charlotte, later in Gary, Ind.—Grant loved reading and talking about her favorite novels. That passion sparked an interest in words, how we form them and send them into the world, which led her to study speech-language pathology at Sargent; she later spent four years in the field, working with children with severe physical and cognitive impairments. Her focus was their prelinguistic skills, but she also collaborated with a team of specialists to improve their ability to eat and swallow.

“I became more and more intrigued with the oral mechanism,” she says. “My fascination with swallowing ultimately led me to pursue dental school.”

The skills she learned at Sargent continued to be invaluable in her new field. “In terms of assessment and diagnosis, looking at the entire patient—understanding and listening, spending more time on the assessment—speech certainly brought that initial skill set to me,” she says.

Even before graduating from the University of Maryland’s dental school, Grant was stepping onto a wider stage as vice president of the student arm of the National Dental Association (NDA). The association traces its roots back to the early 20th century, when 200 black dentists, excluded from existing professional groups, formed their own organization. Today, it aims to promote oral health equity and mentor dental students of color.

Grant has stayed involved with the NDA throughout her career: she was its president in the mid-2000s. During her presidency, she told DentistryIQ, her goal was to “raise the level of understanding of the sad state of access to oral healthcare in our country…. I believe that once people who have the power to change things come to a realistic understanding of the important role of oral health in our overall health, then substantial changes in funding for healthcare initiatives will occur.”

Two Suitcases

Grant’s leadership of the NDA came at a point when she was running her own business—a private practice, Dentally Speaking—and raising a young son. Sometimes, she says, she’d drive to the airport with two suitcases in the trunk, fly out to one meeting, then fly back, “go to my car, change suitcases, and take the train to New York for another meeting.”

Fortunately, she had help, including a supportive husband, reliable childcare, and flexibility at work.

“What a lot of people don’t recognize in society,” she says, “is that if you can’t find good childcare and you can’t find good transportation, you are just not going to be able to do very much as a parent.

“In terms of women assuming leadership roles and being positioned for leadership, there’s been a tremendous change over the course of my lifespan.”

An advocate for women leaders following her path to the top, Grant is a regular presence at her alma maters, proof that it can be done, showing “women that someone can balance a private practice career, raising a child and sustaining a family, assuming visible leadership, and trying to make a difference.”

In 2018, Grant was awarded the Lucy Hobbs Taylor Award, the American Association of Women Dentists’ highest honor, named after the first woman in America to earn a dentistry doctorate.

“Dr. Grant exemplifies the female leader, mentor, educator, and humanitarian in one outstanding voice for females in dentistry throughout the country,” said Tamara Berg, the association’s president, in announcing the award.

It proved to be a fitting finale for Grant’s career. She’s now retired—sort of. Grant remains an examiner for the Commission on Dental Competency Assessments and is still on numerous boards, including the Edward B. Shils Entrepreneurial Fund, which supports initiatives to advance oral health. Despite the busy schedule, Grant says there’s one thing she’d love to have back.

“Every day I miss the value of seeing patients,” she says. “In dentistry, you alleviate pain and restore smiles, and that gives you so much intrinsic reward.”

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