by Dr Ben Danielson
Odessa Brown, the namesake of a pediatric clinic in Seattle, would have had her birthday on April 30. She was born in 1920 and died in 1969, too young in every way. She had leukemia, and I think it’s fair to add that racism hastened her death. It’s just as true today as it was in the 1960s: Black women and men are more likely to have more advanced cancers when diagnosed and are more likely to die from them than white Americans with cancers. similar.
Brown’s life is a story of an overlap of racism and economic disenfranchisement in this country. In Chicago, she was repeatedly denied access to care due to people’s attitudes towards her melanin and wallet. She was a quiet woman by nature, but that doesn’t mean she quietly suffered from the indignities of the healthcare system. Despite this country’s desire for black stoicism, she expressed her anger and frustration. When she moved with her children to Seattle’s Central District, she dedicated herself to promoting health care with dignity for the neighborhood’s predominantly black population. She worked as a quietly persuasive activist at the Central Area Motivation Program. She raised her children. She was part of a task force that eventually resulted in a children’s clinic that bears her name.
Odessa Brown didn’t live to see the clinic’s doors open for the first time. Yet his spirit and practical efforts survived. The clinic’s first medical director, a black woman named Dr. Blanche Lavizzo, took up Odessa’s cause and committed the clinic to providing quality care with dignity. Dr. Lavizzo had to endure his own hardships, only opening the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic after moving to Seattle and being turned down for jobs at places like Group Health due to people’s attitudes. towards his melanin, despite his professional achievements. Dr. Lavizzo carried the torch of Brown’s dignity until Lavizzo also died too young.
Those who know and love the clinic know these stories of black women doing the hard work of fighting racism and offering hope. Black women continue to inhabit the clinic’s ongoing history, in many different positions and roles; all carrying the torch of dignity. Odessa Brown is more than an eponym. She is a beacon, a reminder of remarkable black women, past and present, who navigate life-threatening racism and who are tireless in their active opposition to oppression.
I think Odessa Brown would be mad at us today. I think she would be outraged at how we have squandered opportunities to advance equity, anti-racism and dignity. I think she would be disgusted by the passivity, the inaction of so many people who see themselves as good people who care about fairness, anti-racism and dignity.
She would be furious at how quickly this country ignores its promise of less than two years ago to confront anti-black racism. She would be furious at the rapid shift to a “tough on crime” mentality because she would know it is all too familiar code language for measures that will disproportionately target blacks and browns; in other words, fostering racism. She would be furious at this country’s rush to return to a time before the COVID pandemic. A time plagued by murderous racism, which will only be harder on black communities due to the ravages of the past two years.
Odessa Brown would be furious with us here in Seattle for the way we gave the watchdog company of her namesake clinic, Seattle Children’s Hospital, the slightest slap on the wrist for bawdy racism. How we accepted non-transparency in the racism investigation. How we allowed their subsequent plans to look more like a cheerleader for the status quo than a humble commitment to real change. How we left a hospital board completely unscathed for failing to hold its only employee, the hospital CEO, accountable. How we allowed the hospital to use children as guilt-inducing pawns to justify not making major changes to the hospital. How we allowed the board to ignore the systematic pattern of removing people who speak out against racism from the hospital, to ignore the appalling lack of retention of diverse staff and even the hospital doctors’ vote of no confidence in the CEO. How we enabled a major anchor institution like Seattle Children’s Hospital to use diversity and equity language to prevent transformational diversity or equity from actually happening.
On her birthday, Odessa Brown is reportedly furious at Seattle Children’s Hospital for claiming that keeping some past promises is tantamount to doing new things on behalf of communities. For using money as a substitute for real anti-racism change. She would be deeply concerned that an injection of money into a sickle cell program – and a glaring show of making it a center of excellence – might actually cause more harm to families with sickle cell disease, if racist elements do not are not the first extirpated from it. She would be furious if the hospital didn’t fire a CEO and ask for a board overhaul. For trying to pit black and brown people against other black and brown people. For having hijacked the very word equity. For trying to extinguish the torch of dignity.
Like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., namesake of this county, the namesake of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic would be most exasperated by the inaction of so many. MLK sat in a Birmingham jail, furious with fellow spiritual leaders for their inaction. I think Odessa Brown would share that sentiment and highlight the many people who sat down and helped a valuable hospital avoid real change. The dignity that Brown was talking about was also a dignity that each person risks undermining when they are complacent. One elder, a Swiss-born woman currently residing at the Horizon House retirement community in Seattle, told me that she realizes there is no Switzerland when it comes to racism. Inaction is complicity.
If Seattle Children’s Hospital won’t do what it needs to do, then it doesn’t deserve to have a clinic named after Odessa Brown. It just becomes another form of cultural appropriation. Its nonprofit status becomes a form of economic appropriation, advancing harm against low-income communities without having to pay the taxes that would have supported those communities. It’s time for the CEO of the hospital to be fired with a resounding ousting. It’s time to overhaul the hospital board. Not with silent shuffling of the same elite clutch but with real transformation. It is time for each of us to take up the torch of dignity, to make our own sacrifices, and to do only a fraction of the kind of work that Odessa lived and died for.
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