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Your Profession Needs Your Passion: A Q&A with WSDA Volunteer Leaders

WSDA member dentists share their experiences, insights and advice on volunteer service to the profession.

Keller Fujita Samia
Publisher’s Note: Volunteers play a vital role in any membership organization. The WSDA and its affiliates have been fortunate over the years to have so many talented professionals serve on its committees, boards and in other volunteer positions. But how does one decide the time is right to pursue a volunteer opportunity? What should you look for before signing up? In this article, we wanted to explore different pathways to volunteerism and leadership, as seen through some of those dentists with first-hand experience — three WSDA member dentists serving in varying volunteer capacities.

As a dental professional, time is a major constraint for any volunteer work and you have to be selective in what roles you agree to take on. What do you look for in a leadership opportunity? What piques your interest?

DR. SAMIA: When I started volunteering with SCDS and WSDA, I didn’t know much about the leadership opportunities each had or what different roles entailed. I got involved by saying yes when asked to volunteer, and I’m happy that I did so.

Taking on different roles on the local and state level with little discretion has given me a much greater understanding of how our organizations work, both individually and collectively. In the future I hope to continue to be involved in smaller committees and projects that feel directly impactful to my daily practice/business ownership. I’d also love to help encourage progressive evolution of Washington state dentistry in areas like diversity and inclusion and sustainability.

DR. KELLER: I look for opportunities that allow me to make real impacts on the organization. Some volunteer opportunities can be reduced down to attending a meeting once a year and making comments – those aren’t for me. I like smaller committees or councils where my thinking really makes a difference.

I generally gravitate into three areas:

  1. I have many years of experience with, and really enjoy, advocacy. I like working with regulators and legislators on difficult issues. I enjoy building consensus and seeking novel ways to address complex issues. I enjoy building relationships with other leaders who think very differently about things than I do.
  2. I love education. Heading off problems through education makes so much sense to me. I believe wholeheartedly in the power that competent generalists have to shape the lives of our patients. But I’d love to see education become both more adaptive and responsive to the market and technological forces that are transforming our world. Both the formal classroom (e.g., dental schools) and the continuing education machine that supports us after we graduate are fertile soils for innovation and disruption.
  3. My MBA is in organizational leadership. So all things that have to do with governance, structure, vision/mission statements, and future planning are things that stimulate my interest to contribute.

DR. FUJITA: I did not begin working with my local and state association with the mindset that I was taking a leadership role as much as I thought of it as a service role. It wasn’t so much that I was in the market for another thing to do in my busy life as much as I saw that there is a need for advocacy on behalf of myself, my colleagues, my employees/team-members and my patients. I was made aware at the House of Delegates that a task force was being formed related to dental benefits issues and I knew that I needed to be a part of that.

The dental benefits committee piqued my interest because it is vitally important to the viability of the cottage industry model of practicing dentistry in our state. I did not want to sit on the sidelines while other non-dentist entities were in a position to affect the viability of my practice more than I was. And it is my belief that I am best positioned to advocate for issues that affect the health and wellness of patients with my professional knowledge, experience and the fact that I know them and sincerely care for them in my practice.

Before the task force was formed, I was always a strong advocate for my patients with their 3rd party payers when things were not processed fairly and I would advocate relentlessly to get it right for them. I felt I was in a better position with my knowledge to make a case on their behalf to get things right.

What do you personally get out of taking on a leadership role?

DR. SAMIA: The biggest thing I gain by taking on leadership roles in organized dentistry is community connection to my peers. I did not attend a local dental school. When I started volunteering, I was younger than the average person I saw at my local meetings and younger than the average leader I saw in WSDA/SCDS.

For these reasons, along with the inherent isolation of practicing dentistry, I didn’t know many dentists around me or those in leadership positions. That changed immediately upon starting to volunteer, and I am so grateful for the community of friends, peers, and perspectives I’ve gained. It’s also extremely satisfying to have an idea about a positive change you’d like to see in your professional organization and be able to see it implemented.

DR. KELLER: I make friends and develop relationships. I practice by myself (with my team), so having meaningful connections with other dentists helps me develop an emotional and professional support network where we help one another with all the challenges inherent in our profession.

I also get to create a legacy. I love dentistry; it has been so good to me and my family. I want to both preserve that experience and improve it to bequeath it to the generations that will follow us in our profession.

DR. FUJITA: I get a seat at the table influencing the forces that are shaping my profession. I did not want to sit idly by and complain about the economics and non-dentist influences that threatened the viability of small business dentistry without trying to steer things in a better direction for all the stakeholders in our profession. I want to work in a profession that I would tell my daughters to pursue if they wanted to do so.

Where were you in your career when you felt comfortable pursuing volunteer interests?

DR. SAMIA: When I started volunteering with SCDS, I was one year into private practice ownership and six years out of residency. To be honest, I didn’t consider where I was in my career when I said yes to a volunteer opportunity within organized dentistry.

DR. KELLER: I’m a bit unusual because I’ve always gravitated to leadership. I was college [student body] president in university, I was a leader in dental school, and I was on the Washington Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) board my last two years of dental school. That interest and commitment continued through my service in the US Army Dental Corps and now in private practice. My philosophy has always been that there is no time like now to be counted for good and that if I see a need or a way I can contribute, that means I need to get involved today.

DR. FUJITA: Honestly, if I waited to get involved in volunteering and service until it was comfortable, I would never have begun. I was certainly past the early years of practice ownership when I was occupied with a lot of learning curves both clinically and business-wise. In my case, I bought a small practice straight away, so I was experiencing those learning curves simultaneously. Also, my daughters were in school when I started volunteering so that made it easier.

I am still super busy and I am trying to practice being more intentional about where I put my energy so I can still be present in a meaningful way for my family.

What type of leadership opportunities have you participated in?

DR. SAMIA: I have served on my local association executive committee, as well as acted through the tract that ends with serving as the component society president. This brought me into some WSDA events like House of Delegates, and I served on a WSDA committee subsequently.

DR. KELLER: I’ve served in lots of ways. I’ve been on state and national committees and councils, for both the ADA and the AGD. I’ve held elected positions. I’ve been a leader in dentistry and in community organizations. It’s not the size of the stage however; it’s the size of the actor that makes the difference. In some ways, serving in local leadership roles can be the most rewarding because you’re rubbing shoulders with people you see often and with whom you can have meaningful relationships, like mentoring a new graduate, or teaching at the local RDH or DA schools.

DR. FUJITA: I have served as a delegate for SKCDS for about four-and-a-half years. I served as the secretary/treasurer of my chapter of the Academy of RV Tucker Study club for about 10 years and have been a member since I began practicing 12 years ago. I began working on the dental benefits committee/task force since the Spokane HOD in September 2021 and became the chair of that committee last fall.

Can you share an example of your favorite or most rewarding opportunity you’ve been involved with to date? What makes it so remarkable?

DR. SAMIA: I don’t know that I have a favorite opportunity I’ve been involved with, though I truly love being on my component dental society executive committee and helping to plan member benefits and activities. Our monthly meetings always leave me feeling connected, supported, and more energized to go back into practice the next day.

DR. KELLER: My most meaningful leadership opportunity to date has been teaching in my local dental assisting school for the past 15 years. I spend a day each month with local high school students. I get to praise them, encourage them, and support them at a time when there are many pressures in their lives that weigh them down. I get to help them experience simple dental procedures that build their confidence in themselves and their ability to positively influence their futures. It’s not glamorous, and most of them will not go into or stay within the profession. But I imagine it’s where my personal influence has the greatest meaningful impact and I consider it a privilege to try to be a force of good and positivity for these young people.

DR. FUJITA: The opportunity I have appreciated most is the work on the Dental Benefits Committee because I believe we can make a meaningful impact for my patients, my colleagues and our team members. It has allowed me to have hope that my style of practice and the care I provide will have a place in the future and be a viable business model.

On the flip side, have you ever taken on a leadership role that didn’t work out well for you or didn’t meet your expectations? What was different from your more rewarding experiences?

DR. SAMIA: I think every role gives you some insight. In certain roles I’ve felt more or less impactful, but the experiences gained have always given me a greater understanding of our profession and professional organizations.

DR. KELLER: Politics are a real force in any leadership position; dentistry is not immune to that. I’ve had positions given and taken away from me as the winds of politics blow, and that’s frustrating. I’ve been given opportunities that look like I’ll have a chance to really get into the game, but in which I find myself sitting in meetings and really not contributing in meaningful ways. I’ve had assignments delegated to me and then revoked as leaders win elections and opt to put their people into positions. While this is part of the leadership experience, the lack of self-determination really rankles me. I don’t mind running against someone and losing: there are lots of fantastic leaders in dentistry. But to not have a chance to prove my worth or to be pushed aside or not fully vetted because of a leader’s desire to make a political appointment — that’s more of a cold prickly than a warm fuzzy for me.

DR. FUJITA: I have done some work that wasn’t as compelling. I think it inherently came down to the fact that I wasn’t passionate about the subject itself. It makes sense to me that joy comes from pursuing things we feel passionate about. The time sacrifice and work feel less effortful when it aligns with my natural interests and when I have hope that we might actually make a difference.

What questions do you ask before you pursue a volunteer position?

DR. SAMIA: At this point in life — with a one-year-old — I ask about the time commitment so I can figure out how it will impact “bedtime.” But really, I am motivated to do the best I can in any role, and I want to make sure I have the time and bandwidth to do so in a new opportunity.

DR. KELLER: First, I look at my family situation. My family always comes first. So, I ask myself, “Do I have the time to do well in whatever position I’m considering without negatively impacting my home life?” Then I ask myself, “What about this opportunity is exciting to me?”

Finally, I ask myself, “To whom will this position expose me and how will that further my career or help develop me as a leader?” I don’t do things that negatively impact my home. For example, for five years I was a bishop in my church congregation. Accepting that call required me to step away from all of my other leadership positions in every other area of my life, some of which I really loved. When that call ended it freed up time for me to get back involved.

I’ll take a little bit of a boring position if it exposes me to people who will help me grow. For instance, I’ve served on a committee with the CEO of a billion-dollar shipping company. I’ve served on a board with a former governor and multiple state legislators. Those opportunities developed me in ways I would not have gotten sitting at home.

DR. FUJITA: My perspective at this point is that volunteering must be weighed against the sacrifice of missing time being present with my kids. That is a high bar, because they are growing up and I am constantly humbled with the realization that time is flying by. My philosophy at this point is that if I take on another service role it must take the place of something else versus adding more. Practicing work-life balance is something I am trying to improve each day.

What, if any, are the major barriers that must be overcome in being able to successfully assume a leadership role?

DR. SAMIA: Depending on the position there are certain roles that are elected or voted on, and that seems more likely to be successful if you know other people in leadership roles. For those that are easily discouraged and may not get elected the first time, or who have not previously been involved, they may not continue to pursue more opportunities. I think time commitment for certain leadership roles is also a barrier, especially for members with young families, and particularly mothers of young children. That being said, there are so many ways to be involved, and so much support available for different roles that it is definitely doable.

DR. KELLER: I don’t see many barriers to leadership; I believe anyone can be a leader. Of course, some leaders have higher charisma, and some leaders are far more effective than others, but there is almost an unlimited need for individuals to step up and lead in organizations big and small, and dentistry is not an outlier in that regard.

There are, however, generally two major gates to opportunity. The first one is personal: There are individuals who could be fantastic leaders, but they have to step up. While I’m a huge fan of grooming future leaders, until an individual expresses interest or positively responds to an invitation to get involved, they are invisible. People who want to lead need to be seen.

The second gate focuses on relationships. Take the WSDA board: future leaders are elected by the House of Delegates. The person with the most quality relationships generally wins the election. So, once an individual decides to lead, the only barrier to future leadership will be the desire and capacity to form those relationships needed to assume the desired position. Again, centering on WSDA leadership, building relationships with fellow dentists in your community will be nowhere near as impactful as building relationships with the delegates to the House who actually do the voting.

DR. FUJITA: The barriers I face are practical ones: Can I get out of work in time to make my meeting? Will my kids keep coming into my office during the Zoom call? (They do and it’s okay.) Every dentist in our meetings is making it work with a full life and we show up the best we can.

What advice would you give to a colleague who wants to assume more of a leadership role in the WSDA or ADA?

DR. SAMIA: I would encourage that person to reach out to WSDA admin staff and ask for an introduction to any current board or committee member. I have found our existing leaders to be excited about new people who are interested in getting involved, and happy to provide insight and mentorship. Those who have served for years will absolutely have the best perspective on starting that journey. Secondly, I would encourage everyone interested to go to the House of Delegates at least once.

DR. KELLER: If possible, find a mentor. Both WSDA and ADA publications have a list of leaders within the organization: reach out to one. Express your interest and ask for some mentoring. While anyone can respond to the periodic call for volunteers, a mentoring relationship is both far more rewarding and far more likely to result in meaningful leadership versus just filling a position because it’s available.

(Publisher’s note: Find a list of WSDA mentor dentists at

DR. FUJITA: Just call your component society or the state dental association and ask how you can help. You will not be turned away. Our profession needs you and your passion.

This article originally appeared in Issue 3, 2023 of the WSDA News magazine.