A symbol of a hand holding a torch

OPINION: Odessa Brown and the Torch of Dignity

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 by any measure. She had leukemia, and I think it’s fair to add that racism accelerated her passing. It is just as true today as it was in the 1960s: Black women and men are more likely to have more advanced cancers at diagnosis and are more likely to die from them than white Americans with similar cancers.

Brown’s life is the story of overlapping racism and economic disenfranchisement in this country. In Chicago, she was repeatedly denied access to care because of people’s attitudes toward her melanin and her pocketbook. She was a quiet woman by nature, but that’s not to say she suffered the indignities of the health care system quietly. Despite this country’s desire for Black stoicism, she expressed her anger and frustration. When she moved with her kids to Seattle’s Central District, she dedicated herself to promoting health care with dignity for the neighborhood’s mostly Black population. She worked as a quietly compelling activist at the Central Area Motivation Program. She raised her kids. She was part of a task force that ultimately led to a children’s clinic that bears her name. 

A photograph of Odessa Brown looking at the camera and smiling
Odessa Brown

Odessa Brown didn’t live to see the clinic’s doors open for the first time. Yet her spirit and her tangible efforts lived on. The clinic’s first medical director, a Black woman named Dr. Blanche Lavizzo, took up Odessa’s cause and committed the clinic to delivering quality care with dignity. Dr. Lavizzo had to endure her own travails, starting the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic only after moving to Seattle and being denied employment at places like Group Health because of people’s attitudes toward her melanin, despite her professional accomplishments. Dr. Lavizzo carried Brown’s torch of 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 ongoing story of the clinic, 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 the remarkable Black women, past and present, who navigate life-threatening racism, and who are unflagging in their active opposition to oppression. 

I think Odessa Brown would be furious with us today. I think she would be outraged at the ways we’ve squandered the opportunities to advance equity, anti-racism, and dignity. I think she would be disgusted by the passivity, the inaction of so many who think of themselves as good people who care about equity, and anti-racism, and dignity. 

She would be furious at seeing how quickly this country shrugs off its promise from less than two years ago for a reckoning for anti-Black racism. She would be furious about the rapid swing toward “tough on crime” mentality because she would know this is all-too-familiar code language for measures that will disproportionately target Black and Brown people; in other words, furthering racism. She would be furious at this country’s rush to return to a time before the COVID pandemic. A time rife with life-harming racism, which will only be harder on Black communities because of the ravages of the past two years.

Odessa Brown would be furious with us here in Seattle for how we’ve given her namesake clinic’s overseeing corporation, Seattle Children’s Hospital, the slightest wrist-slap for profligate racism. How we’ve accepted non-transparency in the investigation into racism. How we’ve allowed their subsequent plans to read more like cheerleading for status quo than a humble commitment to real change. How we’ve let a hospital board completely off the hook for not holding its one employee, the hospital CEO, accountable. How we’ve allowed the hospital to use kids as guilt-engendering pawns to justify not making major changes at the hospital. How we’ve allowed the board to ignore the systematic pattern of eliminating people who speak out against the hospital’s racism, ignore the appalling lack of retention of diverse staff, and even the no-confidence vote of hospital physicians toward the CEO. How we’ve allowed an important anchor institution like Seattle Children’s Hospital to use diversity and the language of equity to prevent transformational diversity or equity from actually happening.

On her birthday, Odessa Brown would be furious at Seattle Children’s Hospital for claiming that following through on some previous promises is the same as doing new things on behalf of communities. For using money as a substitute for actual anti-racism-focused change. She would be deeply worried that an infusion of money into a sickle cell program — and a splashy show of making it a center of excellence — could actually lead to more harm done to families who endure sickle cell disease, if racist elements aren’t first rooted out of it. She would be furious for the hospital not firing a CEO and for not calling for an overhaul of the board. For trying to pit some Black and Brown people against other Black and Brown people. For misappropriating the very word equity. For trying to douse the torch of dignity.

Like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., namesake of this county, the namesake of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic would be most infuriated by the inaction of so many. MLK sat in a Birmingham jail, furious at fellow spiritual leaders for their inaction. I think Odessa Brown would share that feeling and would point to the many people who have sat by and allowed a treasured hospital to avoid any real change. The dignity Brown spoke for was also a dignity each person risks undermining when they are complacent. An elder, a woman of Swiss heritage currently residing at Seattle’s Horizon House retirement community, told me she realizes there is no Switzerland when it comes to racism. Inaction is complicity. 

If Seattle Children’s Hospital is unwilling to do what it needs to do, then it does not deserve to have a clinic eponymously 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 hospital CEO to be fired with a resounding ouster. It’s time for a hospital board overhaul. Not with a quiet shuffling of the same elite clutch but with a real transformation. It’s time for each of us to take up the torch of dignity, make our own sacrifices, and do just a fraction of the kind of work Odessa lived for and died for.


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📸 Featured image by NatBasil/Shutterstock.com with editing by Emerald staff.

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