Dr. Ben Danielson: Standing Up to Institutional Racism

Dr. Ben Danielson, photo by Josephine Ensign, 2015

The new year brought hope for a better year ahead. Also, it brought sorrow and anger in Seattle at the news that a beloved physician and community advocate, Dr. Ben Danielson, recently resigned as medical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic is a pediatric clinic run by Seattle Children’s Hospital. It began in the late 1960s in the traditionally Black Seattle neighborhood (because of redlining/racial restrictive covenants) of the Central District. It began from a combination of the Model Cities Program and community calls for improved healthcare access and quality for marginalized urban communities, including communities of color. Seattle Children’s Hospital was—and still is—located in the upscale, mostly gated and white neighborhood of Laurelhurst. Then, as now, there were accusations that the powers that be at Seattle Children’s Hospital were racist, that children and families of color were subjected to racist treatment–as were nurses, physicians, and other healthcare staff members of color. (Also, Seattle Children’s Hospital has been accused of not supporting LGBTQ staff and patients; see my posts on the suicide of nurse Kim Hyatt who was openly gay and who was treated poorly by administrative staff. This showed up clearly in the redacted hospital personnel files I reviewed and in conversations with her friends and co-workers who contacted me.)

According to the independent newspaper, Crosscut, which broke the news of Dr. Danielson’s resignation after twenty years as medical director, “Danielson felt marginalized and alone as the rare Black voice in a position of authority…He said Seattle Children’s would gladly place Odessa Brown, which serves mostly low-income and people of color, on a pedestal to raise money, but would not show that same level of interest when it came to daily care”

I worked alongside Dr. Danielson in the early 2000s when I was a nurse practitioner at the ‘sister’ community clinic, Carolyn Downs Family Medical Clinic. Carolyn Downs is one of our country’s longest surviving clinic begun by the Black Panthers. As a nurse practitioner who had worked at a majority Black community clinic in East Baltimore, I knew about sickle cell anemia in terms of crisis management but not longterm, chronic management. One of my teenage patients at Carolyn Downs had sickle cell anemia and Dr. Danielson helped me manage his care more effectively. Subsequently, when working on my Skid Road oral history project for my forthcoming book, Skid Road: On the Frontier of Health and Homelessness in an American City, I had the please of completing an oral history interview with Dr. Danielson. An edited version of my interview with him is available here. (The audio quality on this one is much better than the video since I wrestled with the equipment that day.)

At the end of my oral history interview with Dr. Danielson, stated, “Diversity and cultural humility and improving the lot of people who are marginalized, that happens when you do it intentionally. Waiting for people to just do it out of generosity, or out of some sense of enlightenment all of a sudden that hasn’t been there for 20 or 30 years, that won’t cut it. We have to be intentional, and we have to be creative, and we have to work hard.” He spoke of being energized and having renewed hope because of the work of young people in the Black Lives Matter movement and because of the social justice work locally of the people of El Centro de la Raza. “You’re reminded that people stepped up. They occupied. They talked about oppression and racism, and they stood up to it and made a difference.”

2 thoughts on “Dr. Ben Danielson: Standing Up to Institutional Racism

  1. Thank you, Josephine, whom we know but other names! Your columns are thoughtful, ethical, Justice-sensitive commentaries on the state of things in bioethics! Thanks! Kathy and John

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