This article was originally published in the Seattle Globalist and has been reprinted with permission.
by Taylor Winkel
As a young man, Heirius Howell spent a lot of time behind bars. He was locked up so often that he can’t remember exactly how many different times he saw the inside of King County Juvenile Detention Facility, but he guesses somewhere around 14.
“It was like a horrible darkness had completely engulfed me, but I couldn’t believe that life was over even though it seemed to be. It had obviously changed drastically, but I couldn’t allow myself to believe that it was over.”
Bridgette Hempstead grimly recounts the day -19 years ago -she was diagnosed with breast cancer as vividly as if the doctor were standing in her office at Skyway’s Cynthia A. Green Family Center and had just delivered the horrid news mere seconds ago.
At the time she faced what appeared to be certain death with limited knowledge of the disease that now contaminated her body and what resources, if any, were at her disposal to fight it.
Had it not been for her pesky intuition, which led her to insist her doctor perform a mammogram, Hempstead’s cancer would actually have remained undetected for years, continuing to devour her body’s healthy cells unabated.
“My doctor initially gave me a litany of excuses as to why I didn’t need one as a woman in my mid- thirties. However the main reason she kept coming back to was that because I was African American it was unnecessary for me to worry about breast cancer,” Hempstead says, shuddering as she contemplates the alternate pathway her life could have taken. “I’m just so glad that I followed my intuition and didn’t wait an additional ten years to have one performed like she suggested.”
While it is true that on average African American women are diagnosed less frequently than their Caucasian counterparts, breast cancer stubbornly remains the most common form of cancer they are stricken with. Just as obstinate is the mortality rate amongst African American women with the disease, which is 41% higher than that of white women.
Reciting these facts typically forces Hempstead into a rage spiral as she feels that the misconceptions about breast cancer and African American women that persists in the medical field mightily contribute to discrepancies in the initial diagnoses and level of care received between white and black women.
“I really think that the media deserves a lot of blame for the unfounded perceptions people have about breast cancer. It wasn’t just my doctor, but, as silly as it sounds now, I even believed that I couldn’t get breast cancer as it only effected white women. It’s unfortunate to see how little that thinking has changed when you talk to many medical professionals,” says Hempstead.
With the confirmation of her cancer detonating this false assumption, Hempstead was sent into a state of shock. Fortunately that disposition lasted only a few days as having two toddlers at home meant limited time for paralysis. So after accepting her plight, the southender decided to do what anyone who has spent a sliver of time in the presence of the woman whose grandchildren affectionately call her Daboo knows is as characteristic of her as unabashed narcissism is of Kanye West – she got going.
“Giving up wasn’t an option for me. I’m a person who believes that everything happens for a reason and I said: Okay you’ve been handed this, but you know what? If I’m going down I’m going down fighting,” says Hempstead, who scoured her native South Seattle area from pillar to post only two days after her cancer was confirmed in a fruitless search of support groups.
“I was facing something that I couldn’t imagine going through by myself, and I knew that there had to be others out there in the southend who were dealing with something similar. I just thought that it was a grave injustice that all the resources for cancer victims seemed to be on the other side of the I-90, which included the best doctors, medical staff, counselors, and pretty much everything that communities of color rarely have equal access to, which honestly is the main reason that black woman have such a high death rate from breast cancer.”
The facts would seem to square with Hempstead’s assessment, as the Susan G Komen Foundation- the United State’s largest breast cancer organization- cites a lack of access to adequate health care, and infrequent doctor visits as factors that contribute to poor prognoses and late stage detection in African American women.
Already facing a daunting battle for her life coupled with radiation treatments that, as she puts it, left her feeling like she had been in a 30 round brass knuckle boxing match with Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson taking turns pummeling her into the ground, Hempstead, completely disgusted with what she felt was an inequitable health care system elected to wage another to combat what she felt was an inattentiveness to the needs of women of color in the southend suffering from breast cancer.
Starting off as an informal meetup only two weeks after her diagnoses, she formed Cierra Sisters to function not only as a support group where women in the community could bond around their shared experience, but one that would also eventually provide them with access to top oncologists, and the entire South Seattle community with educational resources that accurately relayed the risks of breast cancer to women of color. The Cierra, in Cierra Sisters, not so coincidentally means knowledge in Swahili.
“People said I was crazy, that I was literally crazy because this community would never be interested in what I was attempting to do, either because of pride in not wanting to admit that they were struggling with cancer or out of indifference. If I had a dollar for every time people told me my little organization would fail Bill Gates would be looking up at me on the Fortune 500.” laughs Hempstead.
During Cierra Sisters’ early years, when Hempstead served in the capacity of “all of the above”, it appeared that the naysayers had been prophetic as the organization was plagued with biblical streaks of bad luck.
“I think about those early days and it was God that really got me through. There were times that everything I was doing seemed so thankless.” recalls Hempstead, referring to situations such as those that saw local groups partner with the adolescent organization for fundraisers, under the auspice that they were raising money for “breast cancer,” only for Cierra Sisters to be completely cut out of any donations collected during the festivities. This after exhausting their meager budget on marketing for the event-most of which came directly out of her own pocket.
Hempstead even received an ornery letter from a foundation, after applying for funding, that stated her, “grant writer was beyond lousy and must only know English as a second language,” which also contained the unsolicited advice that it would be better for Cierra Sisters to cease as a “going concern.”
However, Hempstead- ever drained- maintained optimism that what she was endeavoring would eventually meet success. “I had to ask myself, who was I doing this for? Was it just for me or was it for those women who needed the support. Had it just been for me I wouldn’t be talking to you right now, because it wouldn’t have been worth all the aggravation,” she sighs.
After withstanding a cascade of negativity and setbacks throughout its formative years, the organization could presently not be flying higher, as meetings that once consisted of only Hempstead and a few infrequent stragglers whose primary reason for attending was to partake of the free food offered, are packed with women who have formed an unbreakable kinship with one another, viewing Cierra Sisters as essential “emotional” therapy that coincides with whatever other treatment they might be undergoing.
“Cierra Sisters is my life line to hope, and an example of how humans should support each other. It is very important to have a support system during time of pain and suffering, but they go beyond that. They’re family to me,” Says Shayla Richardson, a member of Cierra Sisters.
The organization that at one time was told it was flirting with fantasy to ever think it could appeal to African American women has now expanded into a network that spans the country. Its founder has received both national and international honors for her work on breast cancer awareness and is heavily sought for her expertise in developing methods to bring greater focus to the disease in communities of color.
Hempstead- who recently returned from a speaking engagement in Africa- is still incredulous that the group that early on barely had enough money to print educational flyers to distribute to the neighborhoods of Othello, Rainier Beach and Skyway, now routinely conducts informational health workshops in the southend along with their partner organizations, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and Swedish Medical Center.
There latest workshop, Families Coming Together: What Sisters Need To Know For our Families Today, precedes national mammography day and will take place this Saturday, October 11th at New Holly Gathering Hall.
“Bridgette just does everything for members of the Cierra Sisters. I’ve seen her accompany survivors to their weekly doctor’s visits, and provide counsel to all who call. She sits on health boards, she flies to other countries to speak out on breast cancer’s effects on black woman.” says Arthur Walker, who has been volunteering with the group since 2005.
Even as she could not be prouder at her organizations ascendance, Hempstead- who despite a couple of scares has been cancer free for the past 7 years- admits that her work can often be emotionally taxing, especially when a Cierra Sister succumbs to the disease.
“Dying prematurely is never fair, for either the person or their friends and family. Last year we had two deaths a month in our group. It was extremely tough to continually have to say goodbye to people you had become so close to,” shares Hempstead.
“Bridgette sat with women as they’ve passed on, flown bodies to other states to waiting families, comforting them once she arrived, and building a bond that last to this day,” adds Walker.
As the organization settles in on 15 years of existence as a non-profit, this month- which just so happens to be Breast Cancer Awareness Month- may be its most monumental, as not only has it received unprecedented media attention from several media outlets, including KUOW, KIRO, KOMO and KING 5 news (she will be appearing later today on New Day Northwest), but Cierra Sisters was also named the Seattle Seahawks (yes those Seahawks) charity of the month, with the team bestowing a minimum donation of $20,000 to the southend nonprofit .
However, the biggest honor – at least for any person who self-identifies as a “12th man”- that comes with the distinction is that Hempstead will be singing the national anthem during this Sunday’s game at Century Link Field against the Dallas Cowboys.
“From where we were to where we are…” she says,wistfully reflecting on the journey that has brought her to where she is today. And even as her dream has finally been actualized, she seems to just be gathering steam.
“In going what I’ve gone through, you learn to look at every day, every single one as if it is a gift. And gifts are things you don’t easily discard. You appreciate them to the fullest. It took me facing death to learn how to live life. I feel mine has just begun!”
The sight of students with rapt attention, hanging onto every syllable uttered by their instructors as their minds rush to digest the extraordinary knowledge being served – so it can promptly return for a second helping – would seem a dream scenario at any school across the country, let alone one located in the South Seattle area, but indeed that reality transpired last week as around forty students – from high school to college aged- willingly exchanged basking in the glorious summer sun for an elusive education on the systematic structures of racism at the Tyree Scott Freedom School held at Beacon Hill’s UCC Bethany Church.
If that sounds like some heavy scholarship during the dog days of summer it is intended to, shared Ariel Hart a school facilitator. “I feel like this is a rare opportunity for youth to unlearn lessons that they’ve internalized throughout their lives, and other ones that are absent from the majority of school’s curriculum. This is a place that teaches people how to organize to help change things, and to take a look at how racism oppresses everyone, whether you’re a person of color of not.”
The school- named in honor of Tyree Scott, the well known Seattle area civil rights activist and community organizer- models itself after the first Freedom Schools that emerged across the country during the civil rights era as a response to racial inequities within the public education system.
Seattle first joined the Freedom School movement in 1966 when around 4000 -mainly African American – elementary and high school students boycotted the Seattle Public School District to protest the racial segregation that was routinely being practice by the district at the time. A forgotten history of the city that is well worth remembering according to Dustin Washington of American Friends Service Committee, who also serves as one of the school’s lead organizers.
“People see Seattle as a very progressive city, but the reality is that racism continues to persist in our classrooms and everyday life. There’s a reason that youth of color are 4 to 5 times more likely than white youth to be suspended in our school system. There’s a reason why they’re twice as likely to drop out than white youth, and it goes far beyond the myth that they don’t have enough individual will and self-determination. It has much more to do with the systems we’re all prisoner to.”
It was this focus on systems, rather than individuals, as the catalyst for the societal ills that plague communities of color that was at the forefront of much of the teaching the students received during the week. As a result, the subjects they tackled were ones you’d be hard pressed to find mentioned in any other classroom within the city limits – as they grappled with Economic Inequality, Long-Term Juvenile Incarceration, and Disparate Health Outcomes. All issues were intensely scrutinized through a racial lense.
It was a view that was truly eye opening according to many of the students. “What I learned was kind of a shock to me.” Said Asia Davis, a first time attendee who was aghast after learning about the potential causes behind the considerable discrepancy in infant mortality rates between African- American women and their white counterparts. “I go to a school that has mostly white students, so I feel fortunate that I m going to be able to bring back what I’ve learned to my school and share it with the others that go there who would otherwise have no clue.”
The school’s purpose was not only to present provocative subjects in a way that many of the students had never before encountered, but to also develop the next generation of civil and human rights leaders, fostering in them a sense of empowerment that would eventually allow them to impact their communities in an enduring way much as the school’s namesake did.
With that in mind the Tyree Scott Freedom School eschewed a top-down approach to its pedagogy, instead favoring a process that made its students largely responsible- via forged consensus and small group discussions- for everything from creating a decorum by which they agreed to treat each other by, to exploring creative solutions that acted to redress the social grievances presented to them at the school.
“I’ve really learned to be a leader here, and it’s something that I can apply whether I’m organizing people to help house the homeless, or to stop people from being racist as it’s a learned thing. No one is born with that trait.” said Saara Jones a student who attended the school to become a better organizer.
The tactic of allowing them a liberal amount of control in the educational process seemed to go over quite well with the students, many of whom were more familiar with having a pedantic lesson plan dictated to them at their respective public schools. “This school is really magnificent in terms of, not only the knowledge that is installed in the young people here, but in terms of wisdom, and creativity being reciprocal. We get to learn from each other, and teach each other at the same time.” Said Rashaud Johnson, a member of Youth Undoing Institutionalized Racism (YUIR) and Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) who was attending the Freedom School for a fourth time to gain knowledge of how to best organize against the building of the new $210 million King County Juvenile Detention Center that he felt was an extension of the school to prison pipeline.
“I’ve realized from being here, and just talking amongst my peers, the responsibility that comes with being white. It’s hard to address that issue anywhere, especially in a normal school setting with teachers who don’t really get the topic, or want anything to do with it. So it’s great that we can have discussions with people our own age, so that everyone can get a deep understanding of how detrimental racism is, and that we really need to stop with the thinking that puts any race superior to another.” asserted Celia Carina Von Berk, one of several non African – American students who attended Tyree Scott.
The school had a commencement of sorts this past Friday, as all of the students traveled to Seattle City Hall, using what they had learned
throughout the week,to present- in front of an audience of city officials that included Councilmember Nick Licata, City Attorney Pete Holmes, Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim and Office of Civil Rights Director Patricia Lally- their proposals on how to remedy the quagmires associated with the city’s Education, Economic and Juvenile Justice systems- problems that had perplexed many local legislators for longer than the majority of the students had been alive.
After the presentations the students blended amongst the audience and broke into three separate groups to discuss how the submitted proposals could be implemented at the city level. A discussion that the Freedom School attendees found worthwhile. “You had all these different generations cooped up under one roof and actually talking and listening to each other. There was no complaining, just a lot of respect, whether you were a student or an older person. This was a beautiful experience.” said Rashaud Johnson.
Added Simone Evans another student at the Freedom School who had attended to improve her community organizing skills “I’m going to take the information I’ve learned here and go out and do something with it. I can’t wait to come back next year!”
“I still talk to him every morning. I say: Mama loves you.” Ayanna Brown shares as she delicately grasp a branch belonging to the Japanese Maple tree she and her husband planted in memory of her son Alajawan.
The 12 year old boy tragically had his life whisked away from him fours years ago walking from a bus stop near the Skyway 7-11 on Martin Luther King Jr Way and 129th street, when Curtis Walker – a member of the street gang The Bloods – mistook him for a rival and fired four shots directly at Alajawan. The only one to strike his body punctured his lungs, eventually leaving him dead in one of the convenience store’s parking stalls, just a few feet away from where the tree now flourishes in an adjoining enclosure.
“You know that tree isn’t even supposed to be here, that’s what the woman who dug the hole for it said. It’s some sort of miracle that it’s even there.” She says as she makes her way around the parking lot, retracing the steps from the last few moments of her son’s life, coming ever closer to where she saw his body laying those four frightful years ago.
What is equally miraculous is how she is able to roam around the parking lot as if it were nothing but an extension of her living room. The site would more than likely trigger a hail of horrendous memories for most in her situation, but Ayanna has become a permanent fixture of the 7-11, so much so that her presence has become as synonymous with the store as its sporadically operational Slurpee machine .
“It says no loitering.” she chuckles, referring to the sign adhered to the store’s main window that is positioned just low enough for the cashier working inside to be able to acknowledge her with a wave and a smile as she journys around the former crime scene.“I’ve never paid any attention to it though.”
These frequent sojourns are her way of keeping connected to Alajawan, as she continues to cope with his passing. The time clock associated with the grief she feels for burying her youngest child, before he barely scratched life’s potential, has no hands attached to it.
“The Fourth of July is torture for me, all the helicopters, ambulances and fire trucks… it all makes me think back to that day when I lost him. My favorite show used to be CSI, but I can’t watch it anymore because of the autopsies. I just see his face every time. It never gets any easier for me. You just try to get acclimated to the feeling that he’s gone the best you can.”
While her son’s loss still haunts her, it also continues to resonate within the community of Skyway where her precocious 12 year old seemed the frontrunner for mayor had his age not prevented him from being electable.
“He gave up his Saturday mornings to tutor younger kids at a math academy. He would feed people he would see outside of the stores begging for food. He would actually go inside the store and buy food for them with his own money, so they would not go hungry. He would save up to buy his own school supplies so that me and his father didn’t have to. He loved Skyway, and said he always wanted to make a difference here” she says as her mind savors nectarous recollections.
While it would have been understandable for her to have departed the area immediately after Alajawan’s death, forsaking it in the wake of tragedy, Ayanna has credited the Skyway Community for gifting her with strength during ghastly times.
“The people of this community have really rallied around me. I believe in the people who live here in the Skyway/West area. As tragic as Alajawan’s death was, I really don’t think any other community or neighborhood anywhere would have given me and my family the love that we received here.”
She realizes the surprise her statement might cause those whose familiarity with the Skyway area is limited to what currently passes for news coverage on the neighborhood.
“I’m not saying that we don’t have our problems, but so does Bellevue. From my own experience, the majority of the (violence and crime) that happens in Skyway is perpetuated by people who don’t live here. They bring their drama from their respective communities and leave the residents here to deal with the consequences and take the blame.”
She hopes to return all the support that she’s received from the community, while keeping her son’s memory alive, via the Alajawan Brown Foundation- operating as Alajawan’s hands- which besides offering tutoring services to area elementary aged children, provides Thanksgiving dinners to those residents who would starve on the holiday, and organizes a back-to- school supply drive that will be kicking off later today at the Sam’s Club in Renton.
In addition, the foundation offers scholarships to those children who would otherwise be unable to participate in youth sporting activities – including football, Alajawan’s favorite sport- because of the often prohibitive fees associated with them. Of all the charitable enterprises that the foundation participates in, it is this offering that Ayanna seems most proud.
“Before he passed away he wanted to play football. The season was four months away and the fee to participate was $160. Me and his father were going to try to scrape it together, but he told us not to worry about it. He would pay for it himself. The day after he died we found a budget in his room that he had worked out. He had figured out that he had needed to make $40 dollars a month, and he had planned out how many lawns he needed to mow in order to reach his goal.”
“All this work that we’re doing with the foundation is really nothing but continuing on with what he was doing with his life, giving people opportunities that he wanted for himself and others. He would always tell me, ‘Mom, I want to make a difference. That’s my dream, and dreams never die if you don’t let them.” She continues.
“I refuse to let my baby’s memory die. I refuse to allow him to be just another dead black male. He’s not going to be just another statistic as long as I’m breathing.”
As she passes the Japanese Maple one last time before she gets ready to depart from the 7-11 parking lot, only to reconvene there with it again tomorrow, she can’t help but reflect on the trees tenacity. “Yeah, they said that he wouldn’t survive because his roots were too close to the cement in the ground, but look at him now. He’s thriving anyway!”
If you would like to donate to the Alajawan’s Hands back to school drive you can drop off school supplies today between the hours of 9:00am and 3:00pm at the Sam’s Club located at 901 S Grady Way, Renton, WA 98057. You can also deposit your school supply donations at any Puget Sound area Wendy’s collection box until August 20th. You can contact Alajawan’s Hands directly at http://www.alajawanshands.com.
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