A cure for the will to live is what greeted me on the streets of South Seattle Monday night. The mood was like Vatican City moments after they announce the pope died. It was barely an hour after a different announcement. One made by a St. Louis Grand Jury who decided against indicting Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Mike Brown, effectively absolving Wilson of any wrongdoing for fatally shooting the unarmed teenager on August 9th. Continue reading Seattle’s Two Ton Elephant→
In an announcement anticipated by most long before it was officially revealed around 6:00pm PST last night, a St. Louis County Grand Jury decided not to indict Ferguson, Missouri Officer Darren Wilson in the August shooting of 18 year old teenager Mike Brown. While the small Midwestern city with a population of less than 22,000 erupted in a storm of violence- with at least a dozen buildings reported burned down as of this morning- the decision has reverberated throughout the country sparking mass demonstrations from coast to coast. Continue reading South Seattle Reacts to Ferguson Decision→
TAF Academy’s STEM Expo Pitch Event on November 13, 2014 ended with a pitch from a tenth grade student of color. She proposed a convention bringing together tech companies, gamers, bioengineers, and anyone else who might be interested to lay foundations for the ethics of transhumanism. Huh? What? What did she just say? What is transhumanism? And how is it a tenth grader knows and I don’t? Continue reading Technology Access Foundation: Education Done Right→
Some expressed outrage at the city for what they view as gross negligence. Some reserved their indignation for the craven perpetuator of a deplorable crime. And still others probed for concrete solutions to a problem that continues to plague the southend of Seattle with abnormal frequency- yet all gathered together last Saturday at 2:00 pm at the Columbia City Light Rail Station to participate in a “walking vigil” for the 7 year old victim of a hit and run car collision.
One month prior, Zeytuna Edo- walking a short distance from her home to a tutoring class- was crossing the street along Genesee and Martin Luther King Jr Way S with her family, when an unidentified car, struck her, leaving her unconscious, bleeding body in the middle of a busy intersection, furiously speeding away before any witnesses could identify the driver behind the wheel of the vehicle.
Edo-who is currently hospitalized and only recently emerged from critical condition- sustained multiple injuries, most significantly to her head. The rapid response of paramedics to the scene is credited with saving her life.
The Seattle Police Department continues to search for the person who hit her, and is asking anyone who may have any information on the event to come forward.
“I think it is completely wrong that a kid can get hit in the street and a person can drive off and not care,” said Adam Dodge, a local Columbia City resident who came to the vigil to lend his support to Zeytuna’s family.
While nearly everyone in the crowd of more than 100 people who attended the vigil walk- which commenced at MLK Jr Way S and Alaska ended several yards north on MLK Way and Genessee- shared in Dodge’s disgust at the tragedy, many in attendance saw it as symptomatic of a much broader issues-what they feel is the city’s indifference at calming traffic along busy southend arterials- most notably Martin Luther King Jr Way S and Rainier Avenue South.
With the area experiencing a series of car accidents- most recently a massive wreck involving 15 cars and injuring 10 people that transpired on Rainier Avenue South just a day before the vigil- most southend natives have been left scratching their heads in attempts at pinpointing the root cause of all the vehicular calamity the area has suffered through in recent months.
“I think the issue is road design, traffic planning and education,” said Barb Norman, a local who had for some time been concerned about the speeds cars were permitted to go as they entered into the densely populated neighborhoods.
“We have a similar issue in the north end. We have very busy streets like MLK Way,” said Selena Carsiotis- who is a safe streets activist and ventured from her Crown Hill neighborhood to be part of the vigil as well as to take part in a dialogue centering around what can be done to make all Seattle streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.
“I was looking at the wreck that happened on Rainier Avenue South where 10 people were injured. I think its speed and freight that is the main thing causing these accidents. Also, this area is a state freight corridor and I think that might be one of the challenges to the city’s ability to slow speeds. So we might need some collaboration with other jurisdictions to make that happen, but it can happen.”
Both Seattle City Mayor Ed Murray and Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Scott Kubly attended the vigil and reiterated their committed to calming traffic in the area. SDOT had previously scheduled two Rainier Avenue Road Safety Meetings- taking place November 12th and 18th with the intention of relaying the city’s plans for taming traffic along South Seattle arterials to the community and seeking their feedback.
Earlier this week, November 6, SDOT hosted a public meeting at the Hillman City Collaboratory to start a discussion on improving safety, keeping speed low, and helping people cross busy streets, part of SDOT’s effort of implementing a North- South Spine greenway in 2015- north south neighborhood greenway connecting Rainier Beach with Mt. Baker. The gathering had about 45 in attendance, including residents, business owners, community leaders and Rainier Valley Greenways organizers.
Residents hope that the meetings will provide more action than talk, as several have grown exhausted dealing with an issue they feel the city should have addressed long ago. This was on full display at a “Solutions Meeting,” hosted by Rainier Valley Greenways- the main proponents of
city prioritization of safe southend streets for walkers and bicycle riders – that was held directly after the vigil at the Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club.
Interactions between the mayor-who spoke at the Boys & Girls Club- and community members often grew testy as many remained unsatisfied with the city’s response to the ongoing rash of accidents.
“I really hope that something actually comes out of these (upcoming) meetings and that SDOT can put some immediate measures in to slow the traffic. That would improve what’s been happening in the area immediately,” iterated Norman.
With the cacophony of opinion surrounding what, if anything, the city can actually do to ensure safe, walkable southend streets, it seemed almost inevitable that the original impetus of the vigil would be drowned out, however, the thought of the 7 year old girl who was transferred to Children’s Hospital early last week after being at Harborview Medical Center since the incident, was never far from anyone’s mind.
“Our first goal today is to make sure that Zeytuna- her family, her friends, her relatives- know that we are here to support her as a community,” shared Phyllis Porter, who assisted Edo’s family in organizing the vigil.
“Zeytuna and her family is in our hearts. We will hold the idea that our community can be a safe and healthy place for everyone and the streets we walk on can be a good place for us to live”, continued Porter.
If you’d like to help:
come forward if you are the driver of the hit and run collision or know
the person who did this horrific act. Please call the Traffic Collision
Investigators with any information at (206) 684-8923.
Family of Zeytuna is asking for assistance with bus tickets-this will assist her family on their daily travel to Children Hospital to visit Zeytuna on the north side of town.
It all started with a bang and ended with a crash.
It began at 4:00 on Friday night; by 5:30, more than one thousand Rainier Valley residents decked out in full Halloween regalia (Iron Man and Elsa from Frozen costumes to name but a few) had descended upon the eastern portion of Rainier Beach Safeway’s parking lot last Friday for the inaugural Rainier Beach Boo Bash.
The Bash was conceived by Rainier View resident Cindi Laws in response to the 165% increase in gun violence within the Rainier Valley during the past year. “We had a couple of blocks-long shooting sprees in Rainier Beach,” said Laws. “Businesses were shot up. Scores of drive bys. More than a dozen dead. Schools in repeated lockdowns. What does that do to kids? To families? To communities?” she asked.
“Safeway managers were also concerned, and wanted to be a part of a solution, wanted to demonstrate its commitment to our community,” Laws continued. “So we came up with this big idea of creating a Halloween event to provide a safe environment for kids to trick or treat through booths sponsored by local merchants, community groups and city departments.”
Boo Bash at the Beach was also established to draw some positive attention to an area that continues to suffer from the negative public image of crime and violence. The Federal Department of Justice in 2012 identified five locations in Rainier Beach as crime hotspots, and provided nearly a million dollars in funding to change the statistics. After nearly a dozen deaths in spring and early summer, several “Find It/Fix It” walks were scheduled for Mayor Ed Murray to show he cared about Rainier Beach. The mayor, however, was not present at the wonderfully positive Boo Bash.
“This is absolutely fantastic!” exclaimed Jazmine Sampson, who brought her children Jaziah (4) and Lilliana (2) to participate in the Bash. “I thought about taking them out trick-or-treating but I was wary of that because you never know about people these days, unfortunately. But here they can interact with other kids from around the community, and I can connect with my neighbors. I can’t believe all the people here! Kids in the southend complain all the time that there is nothing to do around here, and that often leads to them getting into trouble. We need constant events like this.”
Sampson’s opinion seemed the consensus amongst parents in attendance that were appreciative to see an event thrown in the community that actually diffused many anxieties about safety and provided a ready-made local activity on Halloween night.
“I honestly didn’t know what to do tonight. I wasn’t sure how long I would let my kids be out and how safe it would be as I was only going to allow them to walk to a few houses in either direction of mine while I stood out on the porch, which wouldn’t have been too fun for them. This really solves everything for me,” said Katrina Young, who brought her two daughters along with her.
“I’m sure people heard Rainier Beach Boo Bash and immediately associated that with Halloween in the Hood or some nonsense – meaning that there would be shooting, fighting or what have you,” expressed John Aaron, who has no children of his own but came to enjoy the festivities nonetheless. “Look at all the people here, young, old, black, white, yellow. Everyone is just having a good time. It flies in the face of what most people think about us out here.”
Boo Bash featured live music, Halloween-themed games and nearly thirty trick-or-treat booths carpeted Safeway’s parking lot-treating young ghouls and goblins to so much candy that South Seattle dentists’ jobs are now officially recession proof. Indeed, Boo Bash was free of the violence that some detractors intimated the event would invariably invite.
The only scare that threatened to derail the community celebration was a horrific multi-car wreck involving fifteen cars and a Metro bus, injuring ten people. Rainier Avenue was closed around 5:30 pm, just a few dozen yards from Boo Bash.
With a helicopter overhead, local news outlets exhorted residents to stay completely clear of the area. “Had the media not frightened people away, attendance would easily top 2000 people,” said Laws.
With the success of the event by both quantitative and qualitative measure — the Boo Bash Facebook page continues to be swamped with effusive praise from supremely grateful parents — it is a bit mind boggling that its planning and promotion came about in such a short time.
“We had the will, and we had to find a way to pull this off. ‘No’ was not an option,” said Laws, who had been a long time West Seattle community leader before moving to the Rainier View neighborhood in 2004. “There were many skeptics. It should not be so hard to promote an event that is for children, and it certainly shouldn’t be so challenging to convince some to fund this type of a community festival.”
“Boo Bash was a phenomenal success!” said Laws. “Thanks to our amazing community partners, especially the remarkable people of Safeway; Seattle City Councilmembers Bruce Harrell and Sally Clark, City Attorney Pete Holmes, Maia Segura, Patrice Thomas, Jenny Frankl, Jennifer Samuels, Sally Bailey, Dan Sanchez, Yalonda Gill Masundire, Mark Briant, Jeremi Oliver, Martha Winther, David Della, and Dick Falkenbury; the amazing folks at the Seattle Police Department’s South Precinct and mounted patrol unit; entertainers Michael Cagle, Omar Jackson, and Ryan Hazy; all the incredible people of Seattle Parks, City Light, Seattle Tilth, the Department of Neighborhoods, McDonald’s, Vulcan NW, Waste Management, Burien Staples Copy Center, Boruck Printing, Sound Transit, the Seattle Fire Department, Rainier Beach Merchants Association, Rainier Valley Chamber, Rainier Beach Community Club, Othello Park Alliance, All-Inclusive Boy Scouts, Rainier Vista Smilow Boys & Girls Club and so many others!”
“People of all stripes, colors and creeds are begging for another big event,” concluded Laws. “We really showed what can be accomplished in Rainier Beach if people just come together and quit worrying about turf and credit. It is about the kids, about safety, about fun, about community. And it was incredibly successful. With the generous support of an amazing corporate partnership with Safeway, we all did this together, and we will all do it again.”
Chants of “Sergio Must Go’ rang like salvos last Saturday morning as over 100 protesters assembled at SEIU Local 6’s South Seattle office along Airport Way S to demand a change in leadership at the venerable union that currently represents more than 4,000 janitors, security officers, barbers and retail workers across King County and Washington State.
The protest, the second in as many weeks, was ignited by an October,11th executive nomination meeting that saw long simmering tensions between established union leadership and reform minded candidates finally erupt, when Amelia Vassar- who is seeking to replace Sergio Salinas in the position of Local 6 President- was blocked from any attempt to run against the incumbent by a peculiar interpretation of union bylaws.
“I chose to run against Sergio because as a union representative, I have seen personally, how union leadership discourages organizers from advocating for certain members or challenging certain contractors. I also see that members who have ideas or thoughts that conflict with the view of union leadership are discouraged from participating in their union,” said Vassar who has the distinction of being the first person to challenge Salinas during his 12 year tenure as the union’s head.
“He and the board decided that I was ineligible run against him because I did not work as a janitor or security guard, which is a bad interpretation of the bylaws. These same bylaws were in place when he originally ran for president of Local 6, so he would be in violation of them as well. Sergio knows that he is a very unpopular president and will do anything to avoid a vote.”
While neither Salinas nor any of his supporters attended Saturday’s rally they maintain that there has been no violation of union protocols.
However, his opponents insist that this apparent double standard was the straw on a mountainous stack of many that finally broke the camel’s back. The rally found them united in the opinion that Salinas and the executive board’s current approach to running Local 6 resembles something more tantamount to an authoritarian dictatorship than an organization sympathetic to the concerns of its members.
“This is the first time that Sergio Salinas has had any organized opposition and it really shows, because the internal life of the union has become more and more fearful and more and more repressive,” said Michael Ladd, who in addition to participating in the protest is running as a union reform candidate.
“By in large my fellow rank and file union members are not significantly involved in the decision making process within the organization,” Ladd continued.
“It’s just one big joke. As a shop steward on the job I am expected to be a smart, talented, fierce advocate for both my co-workers and the principles of the labor movement in general. But when you attend a typical membership meeting you quickly find out that the same standard doesn’t apply. Under Salinas, once you walk through the doors of the union hall you’re pretty much expected to shut up, turn your brain off, do as you’re told and never seriously question the leadership’s agenda”
Salinas’ opponents contend that he has been able to concentrate union power for himself and his flatterers on the executive board by installing a fear of retribution in any member who dares oppose him or his policies.
“He terminated me for disloyally once he learned that I was running against him. This is illegal. You can’t terminate me to take me off of the ballot. The members and the international union are going to see through this,” stated Vassar.
“There are countless people who say to me: I’d like to support you but I don’t know if I want to sign your petition Mike because I don’t know if that’s going to get back to Sergio or not, and I don’t want to lose my job,” added Ladd, who has spent the past several months passing out petitions making the case against the union’s current regime.
“We don’t need Edward Snowden to hand us some smoking gun or leaked document to put this all together, these sort of reactions are symptomatic of what many of my coworkers are already thinking. We have a lot of questions as to what the real relationship between the union leadership and the employers is like. And considering everything that has happened we are preparing ourselves for further retaliation from the union officials and the supervisors alike.”
Alongside jitters over reprisal, those at Saturday’s protest are unhappy with what they feel has been a growing coziness between union executives and the employers they are responsible for negotiating with on behalf of union membership. These concerns seem to point to Saturday’s protest being far from the last as long as the current constitution of the executive board remains intact.
“We have no other choice than to change the leadership. We’ve gotten to a crisis point with the issues of extreme workload, employer abuse and meager contracts for workers that are euphemistically labeled modest contracts. Despite being organized for several years our security guards don’t even have union health care,” stated Ladd.
“It’s obvious to many of us that Salinas and his staff are resorting to outright repression because they have realized that the majority of the Local 6 membership want serious reform. Our message is simple : we want the leadership and the union officials to directly reflect the will of the membership. We want a fighting union that empowers both workers on the job and also the communities that we live in order to organize together for a better life and a better world. We are sick and tired of seeing the union leadership stand by as we work our fingers to the bone while the employers get fat and rich. It’s high time that we take our destiny into our own hands.”
Flooding to the movies on a Friday night is about as typical for the average American as a diet forsaking anything resembling a vegetable, but what is rarely found during those jaunts to the multiplex is any reason whatsoever to engage in discourse with your fellow moviegoers that extends beyond, “Excuse me,” while shuffling shamefully to your seat after the previews have already commenced.
You come alone, watch whatever brain cell deadening confection Hollywood has shrewdly marketed to you, and leave alone- more than likely never making eye contact with anyone associated with the hoard of strangers in whose company you just spent nearly two hours. As such, there is no surer bet than wagering that the inspiration to join them in attempting to change the world more than likely missed grazing your mind by a wide margin, let alone striking it. But if they have their way, a group in South Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood will push that inspiration a lot closer to its mark.
Featuring chairs drawn in tight assembly as neighbors hang on each others every word as intently as Moses during dictation of the Ten Commandments, heads alternating between nods of unflappable agreement and a state of stoic repose upon introduction to profound ideas, and spirited discussions that make the atmosphere pulsate with a vivacity that is more typical of an EDM dance club on a Friday night than a community gathering space – with issue focused documentaries that act as the catalyst of the foregoing- Beacon Hill Meaningful Movies,in its fourth month of operation,is seeking to show that despite what currently seems a preponderance of evidence to the contrary-Jeffersonian Democracy is indeed alive and kicking, and in South Seattle nonetheless.
The “Meaningful Movies” brand, first begun in the Wallingford neighborhood 11 years ago, has become distinguished for screening thought provoking films that challenge residents to engage in deliberate discourse and community activism. The end goal being for them to apply what had just been shown on screen to the improvement of communal daily life- in addition to formulating a collective solution to the litany of problems that the films touch on- including human sex trafficking, climate change, and income inequality.
It was seeing this living, breathing cauldron of the civically engaged upon visiting a Meaningful Movies venue in Wallingford that sparked the desire of Christina Olson-the community steward of Beacon Hill Meaningful Movies-to create an offshoot of the film series to the south end.
“I had always been interested in engaging documentaries that sparked conversations, but the best places around Seattle to catch them were at Meaningful Movie venues that were only located in various north end neighborhoods. I used to always think: Wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t have to go across the ship canal on a Friday night just to see a great movie. It occurred to me that probably the only way I could stop doing that was if I brought them here to us in South Seattle,” exclaims Olson.
Olson, having previously succeeded in securing a grant from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods for a garden project, was emboldened to apply to them for funding she used as start up money in getting Meaningful Movies off the ground in Beacon Hill. She ended up partnering with Beacon Arts, the primary organizer of art related events in the area, to help with marketing efforts.
In June, Beacon Hill Meaningful Movies became the newest affiliate of the network’s 11 venues and the only located in the South Seattle area. In its brief time it has attracted those residents who are looking to foster an actual community amongst the people they casually interact with on a daily basis.
“So often neighbors just pass by each other, and don’t discuss topics or engage with each other in any significant way. This acts as a gathering post where people can come and exchange ideas.” says Olson.
The Beacon Hill Meaningful Movies – which shows films every third Friday of the month at the Garden House on Beacon Hill- has gone out of its way to make sure the movies that are presented to its community vary both in tone and message, and have featured topics as diverse as the extinction of honey bees, to the acidification of our oceans, to worker co-operatives.
“It would be easy to provide only environmental films, but we want to stay open and attract a variety of interest and a variety of people instead of becoming: That movie group that’s always harping about migration, or is always on an environmental kick,” shares Olsen.
As important as the films themselves are, they function as only appetizer to the main course, which is the moderated community conversation that ensues just after credits roll, allowing even the rhetorically shy to chime in.
“After each movie we draw the circle of chairs together and everyone shares what they thought about the film how if resonates locally,” says Olson.
“All of our discussions are facilitated because my experience has been that often times in public forums there are strong personalities that can dominate and we don’t want that. We have a series of guidelines so that whoever wants to be heard can be heard. We realize there are some people who are just not quick thinkers and talkers and we want to honor that too.”
It is this parsing of community opinion that Olson believes can serve as a launching pad for transformation within the community which is why she often invites local advocates to the films to enhance the topics being broached.
“The next film we are showing cooperatives in Spain and how they function and we want to have a discussion about how we translate that to possibly forming other cooperatives in the South Seattle area.We’re actually going to have a speaker from “People’s Memorial Association” which is a funeral and burial co-operative to talk about how they formed. We want the neighborhoods of Beacon Hill and beyond to asks questions such as maybe we can form co-operatives of our own here, and not depend on the mercy of a developer for jobs in our area,” says Olson.
But the movies are providing an even more practical purpose according to Beacon Arts director Betty Jean Williamson-who along with Olson heads up Meaningful Movies’ promotion. “I do think that we fill in that gap for people on specific issues where they might only be subject to talking points or “junk food” news that our media currently reports.”
“We want to give the opportunity for people who want to have discussions and want more in depth information about topics that affect us as a society to join us in doing just that. We are currently inviting people from around the area to come be a part of our steering committee to decide what topics should be presented.”
In its brief tenure, the south end affiliate of Meaningful Movie’s steering committee- made up of local Beacon Hill residents- has had the great fortune of choosing films that couldn’t be more timely than if they were in synch with the US Navy Observatory’s Master Clock.
“When we showed Migration is Beautiful it just so happened that we screened the film during the time all the news broke about the children migrants coming across the border into Texas. The government was planning to house them in military institutions. One of our guest that night happened to be involved in immigration issues and she said: We’re proposing an alternative. Why don’t we accommodate them at Discovery Park where the decommissioned barracks of old Fort Lawton could house and provide adequate services in a group setting?”
The relevance of the movies continues to not only attract a huge swath of southend area residents, but has been patronized from those living as far away as Mountlake Terrace and Poulsbo, something that both Olson and Williamson have a growing ambivalence about.
“My greatest fear is that the work that I am doing to facilitate access to arts and creating art in our community can become a lever for gentrification and that is my nightmare. Look at what happened to Belltown and what’s currently going on in the Central District,” says Williamson.
Still, Olson is doing all she can to make sure its local flavor stays intact as she wants to showcase local filmmakers-and by local she means with a capital L, as in within a 5-10 mile radius of Beacon Hill. “Though we didn’t select any this season, we’d like to eventually serve as a venue for local filmmakers within our community, even immigrants. We are currently looking into one that deals with the Ethiopian population of South Seattle.”
As Olson and Williamson embark on making the series a year round affair with viewings and discussions taking place at least twice a month, they face an uphill battle as the initial funding from the Department of Neighborhoods runs out in December which means that the fledgling franchise will have to more than likely depend on the graces of local philanthropists to keep operating beyond the holiday season.
“People really love what we’re doing, and I think we will be successful. It is truly just a matter of time. We’re still under a lot of the neighborhoods radar and are seeking to reach out to them,” says Olson. “As we grow and more people from around the area discover each other and get engaged in the discussion around the topics our films introduce, we feel that the entire community will be strengthened!”
Meaningful Movies Showings ( All films are shown at The Garden House: 2336 15th Ave. South, Seattle, WA, 98114. Doors open at 6:15pm. Film Starts at 7:00pm and includes free popcorn):
Friday, Oct 17th: Shift Change: Film makers Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young will be in attendance along with People’s Memorial Society and a local group that provides assistance in creating coops.
Friday, Nov 21st: Princess Angeline: Film looks at the history of Seattle’s first people the Duwamish Tribe. Film maker Sandy Osawa will be in attendance.
Friday, Dec 19th: Nothing Like Chocolate: Film centers around sustainable, organic, fair trade, bean to bar chocolate produced in Grenada. Great door prizes guaranteed!
“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!”
Amplifying the Authentic Narratives of South Seattle