Creating Change

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Part of the timeline of slavery, racism and related issues. On the wall at entrance to UW Hogness Auditorium for the Health Sciences Service-Learning and Advocacy/Common Book Kick-off event, 10-6-15.

This past week at the University of Washington Health Sciences Common Book kick-off event, I heard a moving speech by Benjamin Danielson, MD. Dr. Danielson is Medical Director at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, a Seattle Children’s community-based clinic in Seattle’s Central District, an area which because of ‘redlining’/racial segregation in Seattle’s history, had been a predominantly black neighborhood. (see the excellent short video “A Really Nice Place to Live” by Shaun Scott). Odessa Brown is co-located in a building with its sister clinic, Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center, a clinic I worked at for five or six years. I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Danielson while coordinating care for a teen with sickle-cell anemia, and I know first-hand what an exquisitely competent and compassionate physician he is. But this week was the first time I’d witnessed his powerful public speaking abilities.

Our UW Health Sciences Common Book this year is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Time of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). This is the fourth year we have had a UW Health Sciences Common Book, with interprofessional activities based on the book’s theme interspersed throughout the academic year. Previous books have been Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (a classic if not a bit ‘overdone’ by now), Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (great topic but his book is in need of heavy editing–he rambles), and last year’s book was Seth Holmes’ Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (great topic but read like a doctoral dissertation–which it was). The New Jim Crow is written in an accessible, non-academic and powerful style, and is, of course, on a painfully current topic in the U.S. and one pertinent to health care inequities: racism.

Dr. Danielson started his talk by acknowledging the history of the Central District where he works, and the ‘strong black women,’ of the neighborhood’s past, Odessa Brown and Carolyn Downs, for whom the two community clinics are named after. Both women advocated for quality and accessible health care for their communities. Odessa Brown, who had experienced racial discrimination in accessing health care, was active in starting a children’s clinic in the Central District before she died at age 49 of leukemia. Kudos to the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic for including information on Odessa Brown (the woman) on their front webpage, in ‘Our History,’ right under ‘Our Mission.’

Carolyn Downs was part of the Seattle Black Panther movement, who with the financial help from people like Jimi Hendrix and James Brown (both from the Central District), in 1968 opened what was then the first health clinic in the community. Less of her history is included on the webpage for the clinic, but I know from having worked there and taking care of the daughter and granddaughter of Carolyn Downs, that she died young of breast cancer–and at least partially because of disparities in access to breast cancer screening and treatment.

I provide some of the history of both Odessa Brown and Carolyn Downs because I admire the work they did during their too-short lives, and because–as Dr. Danielson said in his speech–this can become another example of “black people being deleted from history.”

What to do about the continued, pervasive, and destructive problem of racism in our society, including in our institutions ranging from prisons to hospitals and clinics? The main message from Dr. Danielson and Michelle Alexander (through her book) is that it will take both individual and collective action for us (for the U.S.) to create positive change. During his talk, Dr. Danielson spoke of using the companion community organizing guide to The New Jim Crow, titled Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: An Organizing Guide by Daniel Hunter (Veterans of Hope Project, 2015).

In chapter one of this guide, “Roles in Movement-Building,” Hunter references the terminology used by Bill Moyer in his book Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (New Society Publishers, 2001) This work divides people’s roles into four main groups: 1) Helpers–direct service providers, 2) Advocates-who work to make systems work better for those in need, 3) Organizers–who bring people together to change systems, and 4) Rebels–who speak truth to power and agitate for radical change. The key is to recognize our own strengths and roles–where we are most comfortable working– but also to see the value in the rage of roles played by different people, because an effective social change movement requires people working in all of these roles.

This is similar to the “Bridging the Gap Between Service, Activism, and Politics” group activity from the Bonner training curriculum that I have used for many years when teaching community health. But (of course!) I like the addition of the category ‘Rebels’ to the mix and plan to add that the next time I use this in teaching.

On a very sobering (as if we weren’t already very sober) note, Dr. Danielson ended his talk Tuesday night by adding that for all the good work and innovative community outreach programs of the Odessa Brown Clinic, he often asks himself if they aren’t keeping children healthy enough that they too can end up in our country’s prison system.

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