50 for 50 Podcast: Ricki Fairley ’78

Ricki Fairley

May 19, 2022

20 minute read

Alumni Features Diversity and Inclusion

Ricki Fairley ’78

Ricki Fairley ’78 thought she would never live to see her youngest daughter graduate. But she made it to that 2014 commencement and is still very much alive—and saving lives, as well. About a decade ago, Fairley was diagnosed with a lethal form of breast cancer that is particularly common among Black women—yet they tend to be excluded from experimental drug trials that could improve their chances of survival.

Fairley put her seasoned marketing and public relations skills to work, educating drug makers and helping her wide network of Black "breasties" combat the disease. In addition to sharing her inspiring story, Fairley reflects on the golden anniversary of Black Alumni at Dartmouth Association, which was founded, among others, by her late father, Richard Fairley, Class of 1955.  

Touch, The Black Breast Cancer Alliance

When We Trial

A Letter to My Granddaughters

Transcript

Jennifer Avellino: 

Hi, everyone. Welcome to our 50 for 50 podcast, 50 stories for 50 years as we celebrate three major milestones in Dartmouth's history. As many of you know and some of you can remember firsthand, 1972 was a pivotal year. Women joined the undergraduate community as Dartmouth students following several years of women exchange students on campus. The Black Alumni of Dartmouth Association, or BADA, is also entering its 50th year, and so is the Native American Program. Quite the trifecta of anniversaries, and also not a coincidence that so much happened during this critical time. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

I'm Jennifer Avellino, class of 1989, past president of the Dartmouth Alumni Council, and a former senior producer at CNN. As a journalist, my early days were spent as the news director for WDCR WFRD, Dartmouth broadcasting. I've had the good fortune to meet and bring to the airwaves remarkable people over the years, and this podcast in many ways brings me home. Over the next few months, I'll be talking to inspiring, influential, and fascinating Dartmouth alumni. They'll reflect on what it was like to be a woman, a Native American, a person of color at Dartmouth, and how their time at the college led to the lives that they're pursuing today. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

Our guest today is Ricki Fairley, class of 1978, the founder and CEO of Touch, the Black Breast Cancer Alliance, putting her three decades of marketing expertise to work in her breast cancer advocacy. She hosts "The Doctor Is In," a weekly live web series on the Black Doctor Facebook page. She recently started the "When We Trial" movement, which encourages the importance of Black women participating in clinical trial research. Ricki holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. She's president emeritus of BADA, the Black Alumni of Dartmouth Association, and she's chairing BADA's 50th anniversary gathering, taking place in Hanover in May of 2022. Ricki, welcome. 

Ricki Fairley: 

I'm so happy to be here with you, Jennifer. Thank you so much. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

Thrilled to have you. Tell me about the founding of BADA in 1972. Let's go back 50 years. So much happened at the college during that important year. You have more than a few connections to the founders. They include your late father, Richard Fairley, Dartmouth class of 1955. What were the reasons behind creating the Black Alumni Association and what does this 50th anniversary mean to you? 

Ricki Fairley: 

Well, I was a junior in high school, and going to Dartmouth was something that my dad and I did pretty much since I was about 10. We would go to Winter Carnival or go to a football game and my mother never wanted to go with us, my sister either, because it was too cold, but we would get in the car and drive to Hanover, 12 hours from D.C., but my dad loved that. I remember him being on the phone a lot, talking to students and students were calling him and reaching out to him. Then he was talking to his fellow alums, Garvey Clarke and Gene Booth and Nels Armstrong and a bunch of them and they were saying, "We need you to come to Dartmouth. We need help on the campus. We have a lot of Black students coming in from inner cities and they're struggling. They need alumni support." 

Ricki Fairley: 

My dad woke me up one morning and said, "Okay, we're going to Hanover. Get in the car, get your stuff," and so we drive to Hanover and we get there and I noticed the other alums are there. I was brought to be the babysitter because I probably had about 12 kids I was taking care of from all the alums and my dad, we had a room at the Hanover and just for the kids and me and, "Order room service. Do what you got to do, but we'll be back. Don't go." They formed BADA. They formed BADA that weekend. I just remember going up for probably the first and second reunions. Then two years later, I became a student. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

What kind of support did your father and the others provide for students at the time? What were they looking for? What kind of support did they give them? 

Ricki Fairley: 

Really, counseling, helping them deal with being in Hanover, being a few Black students on campus. It was very different then, and I can talk about my experience, but I think they felt alone. They felt that they didn't have paternal figures in their lives. It was rough coming from the South Side of Chicago or an all-Black neighborhood in D.C. and coming to Hanover where they didn't see anyone who looked like them, right, or all the students, so just counseling and coaching and helping them live through the experience, and also career counseling, "Okay. Now, what am I going to do with my Dartmouth degree?" A lot of these people had never been on a plane before, had never been out of their own hometown, and so I think just getting advice about how to live through and deal with this experience of being in an all-white environment for the first time in their lives. Then what do I do with that when I graduate? 

Jennifer Avellino: 

50 years now. Reflect a little bit from me on this amazing community, what this 50th anniversary means. You've been thinking a lot about this over the last couple of years. 

Ricki Fairley: 

Yeah. I don't know how we got here. How did I get this old? When I started thinking about it, I guess maybe two years ago, okay, my dad passed in 2006, and he's always here. He shows up in many ways and I could hear him talking about this and I was dreaming about, "Oh, my gosh, BADA is going to be 50." 

Ricki Fairley: 

I woke up one day, I was, "Okay, I have to share this because my dad's going to haunt me if I don't," right, so I started thinking about all the things that we could talk about and all the things that I know that I've imparted on my daughters, but I feel I could benefit other students and other alums, and so we have to have this gathering and we have to make it big. We have to celebrate what's been accomplished by not only our founders, but all of our amazing Black alums and all the good things they've done and bring us together. It's a way to gather everyone together and come back to Hanover where we all feel like it's Camelot and just have some fellowship and fun and also coach the students that are there now. I'm so looking forward to it. I couldn't do it without my amazing team. I won't say that one name because I'll have to say all of them, and I'll forget somebody and be in trouble, but we have an amazing, amazing team that we will honor. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

Let's go back to your time at Dartmouth. How did you feel arriving as a student in the fall of 1974, the third class of women? Did you feel like you were breaking ground? What was Dartmouth like at the time for you? 

Ricki Fairley: 

I don't feel like I was breaking ground. I didn't realize it until later. I had gone to an all-girls Catholic high school, so I had never been in a class with boys. Being the only woman in the room, being the only Black woman in the classroom, that was different for me, and I had to figure that out. But I think because I did go to an all-girls high school, I had chutzpah, so I took it as an opportunity to use my voice when I could as opposed to being afraid of it. I had grown up in this world where my dad was an activist, my mom was an activist, so speak your mind. It didn't intimidate me. After a while, I found my space in that and it was actually, I think, helpful to get to help me formulate my voice. 

Ricki Fairley: 

But we had a lot of support. We had a lot of support. It's really different, even in my daughters' experiences because we had a Black dean, we had a Black basketball coach, a couple of them, we had the Errol Hill family there. We had probably about seven or eight Black families living in Hanover that cooked us fried chicken on the weekends. They were an integral part of our lives. They brought a lot of parental support, loving support that I think that I don't think the kids have now from just having that camaraderie and familialness in Hanover, like we could walk to their houses. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

You say you figured it out. How do you figure it out? How do you take action? How do you move forward when you're the only woman in a space, in a classroom, in a social space, or you're the only Black person in a classroom, or in a space at Dartmouth? What did you do to figure it out, in your words? 

Ricki Fairley: 

Well, my dad used to take me to a lot of meetings with him and he went to a lot of conferences. He was the deputy assistant secretary of education for the government and he would say, "Go collect as many business cards as you can, and when we're driving home, you're going to tell me about all these people that you met." Literally, okay, "What's their wife's name? What do they do for a living? What's their contribution to the world?" Whatever. We've had these conversations in the car, but I think I had to use that. I've never been shy. I talk to strangers everywhere and I just did that. 

Ricki Fairley: 

I don't know if there's a way to do it or what made me do it. I think it was part of my being because my dad, I think, encouraged me to be a people person and figure... My dad always said, "The people that you encounter in your life were put there for a reason, and you may not know it in the moment, but you'll figure it out eventually, so use that, take advantage of that. Don't burn a bridge and make friends everywhere." That's how I was brought up and that's what I did, I think, my whole life, really. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

Did you have women professors? Did you think of that in the equation at the time in the mid-1970s when Dartmouth professors were mostly men? 

Ricki Fairley: 

Not really. I mean, I think I probably looked more for female support in the dean's office with Dean Nelson, Joe Nelson. We had a lot of good support with the Black families in town, like Grace Hill, the wife of Professor Errol Hill. She was this beautiful, gracious, wonderful woman. She's still there in Hanover and she's adorable. I met Grace Hill my freshman year because she taught a dance class in the gym and I was a dancer and so she embraced me into their family and they were a great familial support. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

Ricki, we'll come back to more about Dartmouth, but I want to turn to a subject that has become so vitally important in your life in recent years. About a decade ago, you learned that you had breast cancer, the extremely serious diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer. How did this change your life's course? What did you decide that you needed to do going forward? 

Ricki Fairley: 

Well, I was diagnosed with Stage IIIA triple-negative breast cancer. It's the worst one. It has the highest mortality rate. It affects Black women at three times the rate of white women and most women die from it and I didn't die. I did a double mastectomy. I did a lot of chemotherapy. I did radiation and my cancer came back after a year. My doctor said, "Okay, Ricki, you have two years to live. Get your affairs in order. There's nothing I can do for you." I said, "Well, I can't really die right now. I have a daughter at Dartmouth. My baby daughter, Hayley, was a sophomore. Me, you, and God need to work this out. What have you got for me?" 

Ricki Fairley: 

I fought for myself, I got another doctor, I went on some experimental drugs, and here I am 10 years later. I know that God left me here to do this work. It was interesting because my first goal was to get Hayley to graduation. Really, for those couple of years, I worked for Hayley. I worked for tuition. We did it and I remember thinking, "Okay, well, what am I supposed to do next?" because I made it here and I didn't think I was going to make it there. I said, "I have to advocate for breast cancer." 

Ricki Fairley: 

I started looking around at all the numbers about Black women and having a different kind of disease and having a 41% higher mortality rate and a 39% higher recurrence rate than white women. Black women under 35, getting breast cancer at twice the rate of white women, dying at three times the rate, and the fact that Black women get triple-negative at three times the rate. Those things were like, oh, my goodness. I am a marketing person by trade and so I built a marketing story around the statistics and presenting it to pharmaceutical companies saying, "We have a different disease. These drugs aren't working. Something's wrong here," and so I put myself on a mission to figure this out and to try to save Black women from dying of breast cancer. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

This became so much more than just a personal fight for you. How did you work to mobilize Black women and others to draw attention to this? 

Ricki Fairley: 

The numbers speak for themselves, Jennifer. The numbers are horrific. I mean, if we think about it, for every 100 white women that die of breast cancer, 141 Black women die. That's outrageous. I don't want anyone to die of breast cancer, but I at least want mortality rate parity for Black women. When I went back and looked in history at the drugs that are standard of care for breast cancer, no Black women were in the clinical trials. Guess what? The drugs aren't working for us. I'm a miracle, I mean, but I had to take some experimental drugs to work for me. The number of Black women in clinical research should be commensurate with the burden of disease. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

Ricki, tell me more about your focus on clinical trials, particularly for Black women. 

Ricki Fairley: 

Well, I want to start a movement. I didn't want it to be a marketing campaign. I want it to be a movement. I want to reach Black women where they live, work, play, and pray. There's a lot of medical mistrust, earned medical mistrust by Black people because of the history of science with Black people, right? We don't trust pharmaceutical companies, we don't trust doctors, we don't trust clinicians, and so I had to figure out how to deal with that mistrust and overcome it. It's so important that we do this research because the drugs are not working. Black women are dying every day from a disease they don't need to die from. 

Ricki Fairley: 

I built a communication platform like I would approach any marketing challenge, right? I held a bunch of focus groups, I did a bunch of research. I interviewed 50 Black women, Black breasties in qualitative interviews and focus groups and then I did a quant study of 250 Black women breast cancer survivors and patients to really understand what their fear of research is, change that fear and change that understanding to educate them in a way that they will understand it better. 

Ricki Fairley: 

What I learned was breasties, and the breasty community is not one you want to be in, it's not a club you want to join. I don't recommend it, but once you're in it, it's unconditional love and trust. I learned that breasties were telling other breasties, "Don't do a clinical trial. You're going to get the sugar pill and die," and so the level of understanding, the level of literacy about clinical trials was just be under the ground, and so I learned that, "Oh, my gosh. I have to educate my breasties. I have to educate our community, which is very close-knit, and teach them what a clinical trial is. What is a science all about? Guess what? That Advil that you got last took last week for a headache was in a clinical trial. That Tylenol you gave your baby was in a clinical trial. That antibiotic you gave your dog was in a clinical trial." When you break down the science to them in a very elementary way, they get it, they understand it, and they embrace it. 

Ricki Fairley: 

We built a campaign based on the insights we got from this research to really develop marketing messaging that would be different and educate them from a Black woman, from a Black breasty, to a Black breasty. I've become a voice of trust, as all breasties are. The message we learned had to come from our community to really get our community engaged in understanding the science and what they need to know to save their lives. We launched this campaign in January, and so far, we've gotten 200 women to join clinical trials, which is amazing to me. We have to do this work. We need thousands to join, but at least that's a start to make this movement happen. But we really built this website, whenwetrial.org, to be educational, but also with a lot of love from a voice of trust. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

Well, in addition to your natural enthusiasm, it sounds like your previous career in marketing at major corporations really has informed the work that you're doing now and is making it succeed. Do you think about your previous career and what you're bringing to this? 

Ricki Fairley: 

I do. I work with many other breast cancer advocacy groups and partners that I love to work with, but I see that my marketing voice makes what we do different, and I know how to make commercials. I know we have a great radio ad. I worked at Coke, I worked at Nabisco, I worked at a lot of big corporations, so I am trying to use my business acumen to do this work. I've been able to raise a lot of money, thank you, God, for the pharmaceutical supporters that we have. I'm so grateful for what they've given us to do this work, but I'm really meticulous about building things that we can measure the results. We're doing a digital media campaign, so I know every day how many people we're reaching and how many people we're touching with our message. We now are on radio in 10 cities and we're measuring it, so I can now go back to my funders and say, "Guess what? These are the results that we got," and I think I can do that differently because of my marketing background. 

Ricki Fairley: 

Also, my show that we do, "The Doctor Is In," we're on every Wednesday on the Blackdoctor.org Facebook page, and we reached three million people last year, so we've made a voice for ourselves in this very targeted environment where we know we are reaching Black patients with these messages, and with content they want to talk about. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

Where do you want to be in five or 10 years with this fight? 

Ricki Fairley: 

Well, Belle is four-and-a-half, my oldest grandbaby, class of 2039, and I don't want her to talk about breast cancer. I don't want her to think about it. I want it to go away. I don't know that I can cure it. I hope to God something's going to happen with medicine over the next few years with science. I don't want breast cancer to be a factor in the lives of my granddaughter, so whatever I can do over the next five and 10 years to make that happen... I want to make my job go away. I want to make my job go away and go to the beach. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

Well, you've given me the perfect segue. You wrote a letter to your three young granddaughters, which was shared by the Women of Dartmouth Inspire Project about some life lessons, about optimism, and challenges, about being a leader. Can you share some of that thinking with us, what you want them to know? 

Ricki Fairley: 

I want them to know that they can do or say or be anything. I want them to be open and available to any idea they want to accomplish or anything they want to accomplish. I want them to be healthy and free of disease and not worried about anything. I want them to take on the world. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

I have to ask you, we're taping this podcast during the week when the first Black woman vice president of the United States presided over the Senate vote to confirm the first African-American woman on the Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson. What are you adding to the letter for your granddaughters this week? 

Ricki Fairley: 

I think just to be able to show them an example of a woman who's achieved is just a great thing. We try to do that every day. We actually went to the hearing. We took baby Hart, one-year-old, Amanda and I and stood in front of the Supreme Court the first day of the hearing started and we dressed them up in their little judge outfits yesterday and explained everything to them. It's really more of saying, "There are no limits. There are no limits. There are no limits to whatever you want to do in your life." 

Jennifer Avellino: 

Ricki, you get to see Dartmouth through many lenses, not just yours and your father's. You have two daughters who graduated from Dartmouth, the class of 2007, the class of 2014. We've mentioned them here a little bit. Can you talk about how you've seen Dartmouth evolve in recent decades? What was your daughters' Dartmouth like? How was it different from yours? 

Ricki Fairley: 

We have all had different Dartmouth experiences. My dad's stories are hysterically crazy. He talked a lot about working at Lou's. He used to work at Lou's on Sundays and he would bring pies home to his roommates, but I mean, there were 12 Blacks when my dad was at Dartmouth. My dad tells the story about how his older brother sold his car to buy my dad a coat that was warm enough for Hanover. I have many versions of the story from my mom coming to visit my dad for Winter Carnival, where he didn't have enough money to take a cab to pick her up at White River Junction and they would hitchhike home from White River Junction from the train to bring my mom to Hanover. 

Ricki Fairley: 

Then I had the best time ever. I had the best time ever. I was a cheerleader. We had all Black cheerleaders for basketball. I tried to live Dartmouth. When my daughters went, I'm like, "Okay, you guys, you have to travel the world." Amanda was very focused on government and legislation and doing things and is now on the Tucker Board and Hayley was a dancer. She went from being this beautiful ballerina in high school to being the leader of Sheba and being a hip-hop dancer and she had a very different situation at Dartmouth. She spent a summer in Beijing, she spent a summer in Ghana, and she really took travel on as a thing she wanted to do. But I think we all really did the best we could to get the most out of Dartmouth, all of us. I do think it's very different now. I think that I talked to Shontay Delalue earlier this week. She is a jewel and she's going to do such great things for the college. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

She's the new chief diversity officer for Dartmouth, who joined the college last year. She's responsible for overseeing the college's diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Can you reflect a little bit on the Dartmouth of today through the prism that you've seen it through your daughters, through what Shontay is experiencing now, and how she's working to change Dartmouth? 

Ricki Fairley: 

This is what I talked to her about. We're missing the familialness, we're missing the families, we're missing what I experienced in terms of having a support system. I think that's what I challenged her to bring back. She is living in Hanover on campus and is accessible to the students. I asked her to bring back that family, build a family, cook fried chicken in her kitchen, or get it cooked, and bring kids to her household because I think they need that. The students need to know they've got a support system of people that look like them and cook like them and can do their hair and can hang out with them and can relate to them in a different way than the white professors and support system can provide. 

Ricki Fairley: 

I think also we as alums need to do a better job. A lot of us work with the cause we have a great mentoring program run by Buddy Teevens and Lafayette Ford and we're trying to figure out how to expand that to other areas across the campus and working with other professors and groups across the campus. That's part of our BADA 50th challenge. But I think we have to give support to the kids that are... The kids are so smart and so driven and so focused. They're way smarter than I was. Even my kids are way smarter than I am. But I think we owe it to them to give them familial support, knowing that they have someone they can call, a shoulder to cry on, someone to lean on if they need help, and just to be there for them. That's what we're trying to do more of within BADA with this reunion. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

Tell me more about that BADA challenge. What are you trying to accomplish? 

Ricki Fairley: 

I want more alums to play a role and be more involved with the students and feel a responsibility to helping them get through. I felt maybe because of my dad and my network with my dad, I had a lot of alum support. My kids did also. My kids, they had all of my friends to support them, but you shouldn't have to be the daughter of an alum or the son of an alum to get that support. We want to provide that support to first-gen kids, to really all of the students. We all are doing great things. I know a lot of amazing, amazing BADA alums that are doing great things, so bring it home to Dartmouth and help the kids. We hope to do that. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

There's a much higher percentage of first-generation college students than when you or I were at Dartmouth. There's a much higher percentage of international students. It's a much more diverse place overall. What else can Dartmouth do to become the best place it can be, the most inclusive place it can be for all students? 

Ricki Fairley: 

Dartmouth is great. I mean, I think that the outlets they provide for people to learn and travel and go around the world is great. I just hope that the kids are given the opportunity to understand what they have access to early on. I think a lot of these first-gen kids come, they've never been away from home before, and it takes them a while to acclimate to being in Hanover, but I want them to know what they have access to on day one. 

Ricki Fairley: 

I think also the college can help kids prepare for the world a little differently just by giving more access to what the world looks like. One of the interview questions I use for Dartmouth students is, "What have you done when if you left the room, it wouldn't have happened? If you weren't there, what wouldn't have happened?" Right? These kids always have great answers, even if it's, "I had to take care of my baby sister because my mom was working. This is what I did with her to teach her how to read," or whatever. But I think, think of something where you can make your mark on something that didn't exist before, and that's what the college should help them do. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

It's having a form of control over your destiny, it sounds like. What advice do you have for Dartmouth students, recent graduates, as they make their way out into the world, eager to make that difference, make their mark? You haven't just pursued one course. Perhaps that's a bit of a clue for them as well. 

Ricki Fairley: 

Live your dream. Live your dream. These kids can do anything. I think that one of the things that helped me in my career was I worked for some really good corporations, but I was always an intrapreneur in some way. I always had this sort of mindset to start my own company, but I was able to learn and make mistakes on somebody else's money and somebody else's time, right, so when it came time for me to become an entrepreneur, I had a lot of skills, and I had a lot of experience that I could fall back on, and I could see where I learned from my mistakes. 

Ricki Fairley: 

These kids come out of school, they want to be entrepreneurs, "On day one, I want to be the CEO, I want to be the president." But you know what? Take a little time and spend somebody else's money. Learn from them, get to know yourself, get to know your strengths, and figure out what you're good at because when you do go out on your own and do your wonderful thing that you're going to do, you're going to need help, and you're going to need relationships to fall back on. You're going to need experiences to fall back on. You're going to need health insurance and figure how to do that. Learn from somebody else. You have lots of alums that can give you jobs and help you get to where you want to go so that you can take off on your own. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

Ricki, before we go, pull out your crystal ball for me. What do you see for Dartmouth's future? What do you hope for Dartmouth's future? 

Ricki Fairley: 

When I go to Hanover, it's like going to Camelot. I still see the Hanover Inn and Baker Library and Dartmouth Hall and Parkhurst and even though there's many more buildings and many more things, I still see the Green, I still see the tradition, and the wholeness of Dartmouth and the warmth that you feel, even when it's zero degrees. I want that to stay. I want that tradition and all that old stuff that makes you feel warm and fuzzy to stay, but I want Dartmouth to stay with the world and be on top of technology and be advancing science and curing breast cancer and producing these brainiac people that can save the world. I love our alums. I love what we do. We all have this service orientation and this spiritual connection with trying to do something good in the world and that's something I treasure 

Jennifer Avellino: 

Well, Ricki, this has been a wonderful conversation. Anyone who knows you knows your passion, your determination, optimism, your ability to make the world just seem a little brighter, so I'm so glad we could share that with our listeners today. Ricki Fairley, class of 1978. Thank you so much for joining us. 

Ricki Fairley: 

Thank you so much. I'm so excited about what you're doing. The 50 for 50 is so great. I'm so excited to have our reunion. I hope people come and I hope Dartmouth continues to soar and be the place that's all in all of our hearts. 

Jennifer Avellino: 

Thanks to all of you for listening to our 50 for 50 podcast series, supported by our Office of Alumni Relations. I'm Jennifer Avellino. My thanks to our co-producers Catherine Darragh and Charlotte Albright and to Dartmouth Media Production Group for technical assistance. We hope you'll join us for our next episode marking Dartmouth's three milestone anniversaries.