Community Conversations: Dr. Ben Danielson

Community Conversations: Dr. Ben Danielson

In our latest Community Conversation, Dr. Ben Danielson reflects on the anniversary of his resignation from Seattle Children’s Hospital and shares what he has learned about himself and his community over the last year. Dr. Danielson is a pediatrician, professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and the director of Allies in Healthier Systems for Health and Abundance in Youth (AHSHAY)—as well as the GHF board chair. 

During his conversation with GHF President and CEO Nichole June Maher, Dr. Danielson also talks about the trap of exceptionalism and the shift in his perspective of Ruby Bridges’ story. Instead of interpreting it as an illustration of courage and dedication, he now sees the painful oneness the story depicts: “I think about what it means to be asking maybe our youngest people to be directly placed in harm’s way as a way to create change in this country. Are we really a country of cowards in that deep way that we must only move once we see the most fragile and youngest of us making a move?” 


Full video transcript

NICHOLE:

Hello. I’m Nichole June Maher, president and CEO of the Group Health Foundation. Today I have the great pleasure and joy of being in conversation with Dr. Ben Danielson, beloved pediatrician and professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Ben serves on many boards throughout our state, and two examples of those are the Center for Children and Youth Justice, and, of course, you serve as the chair of the Group Health Foundation.

For 20 years, Ben has served as the medical director of the Seattle Children’s Odessa Brown Clinic, based out of Seattle’s Central District. Most recently, Dr. Danielson was named the director of a newly formed center, Allies in Healthier Systems for Health and Abundance in Youth, or AHSHAY. This institute is held at the University of Washington and it aims to end youth incarceration in Washington by 2030. Dr. Danielson is perhaps best known here in Seattle and beyond as a trusted community leader, and I’m so excited to visit with you today. So, to start with, how are you doing?

BEN:

I’m doing OK. I’m in a really pensive moment. I was just realizing, yesterday was the anniversary of my public declaration that I was resigning from my position at Seattle Children’s Hospital, which meant I gave up my favorite job, my best job ever, which was being the director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. So you can’t help on anniversaries, get a little bit of breviary and kind of reflection into your mood, right?

NICHOLE:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, it’s a gift for us to be with you in a one-year anniversary of what must have been one of the most challenging and emotional days in your career, and for us to have a chance to reflect and be together at this time.

BEN:

I’m always glad to be with you. And I also think about the years now that we’ve gotten to be colleagues and work together, and I’ve just been so inspired by just being part of Group Health Foundation and knowing you personally as well.

NICHOLE:

Today I get the chance to introduce you to our larger community. And so I’m sure there’s folks out there that won’t know you as well as I have had the privilege of kind of spending time with you. And so we have a practice at Group Health Foundation where we… when we’re meeting people for the first time, we ask and invite them to tell us about: Who are your people? Who is your family? Where did you grow up and what communities do you identify with?

So if you wouldn’t mind, would you answer the same question for me and our larger audience today?

BEN:

Sure. I might go backwards a little bit. I am so humbled and honored to be part of a very joyous, and powerful Black community in the Seattle area, and part of that community expands and expands beyond geography. I love being part of Seattle’s Black community, especially there’s a sense of connectedness and belonging that I’m not sure I felt anywhere else, except maybe in my youngest childhood.

As a young child I grew up in Washington, D.C. and the inner city there, and I know my mom moved us there, partly so that I could have a chance to understand what it was like to grow up in a Black community and maybe learn some of the lessons I was supposed to learn – I’m not sure I did – but was supposed to learn about what it means to be, I don’t know, Black in America, to be part of this whole journey and how to show up, and what you’re supposed to do, or maybe how to survive.

I think a lot about growing up in D.C. and the lessons of survival that folks were trying to teach me at that time. And the wisdom of my mom, who kind of knew she didn’t have a whole lot of the answers for how to raise a boy, let alone a Brown kid and how much it takes a whole community sometimes to really show up in different ways. Again, I don’t think I heeded lessons or listened well at the time, but so many of those kind of stuck in my head and I needed them later. In high school, we moved out to Montana. And so I went from a community that was all Black and just really rich and strong in that sense of identity, to a place where they had never seen a Black person really in a school before. And it was an interesting experience. And it was then that a lot of those lessons kind of, kind of came back to me.

But I guess for all of us, these kinds of things help you navigate different spaces. You find out a little bit more about who you are, a lot more about who the people around you are, and somehow those paths kind of keep adding up.

NICHOLE:

We talked about this a little bit earlier because it’s the one year anniversary, but one of your most public and well-known acts of leadership happened a year ago yesterday when you publicly resigned your position at Odessa Brown, a beloved job that you adored. And you resigned because you refuse to be complicit in a whole variety of racist practices and systems that were part of the Seattle Children’s.

And you know, I’ve known you for some time now. You’re always so good at reminding us about the leaders and folks who have mentored and taught you. And maybe if you could share a little bit more about you know, who’s leader – which leaders and what voices were in your head as you chose to take that stand and to do it in such a public way and use your positional power to do so when so many, so many folks who have come before you have not had that opportunity.

BEN:

Including myself, right? So 21 years with a hospital system and watching things happen and that old like, “I’m going to change things from the inside” mentality and not making much ground. So, I don’t know that – there are lots of reasons why I don’t think I would earn any laurels in this, in this respect. One of them is just that being a physician in the United States in this time is a place of incredible privilege and to be able to resign a position takes an incredible amount of privilege.

There are so many people who have so many other obligations, responsibilities, hard decisions they have to make, but they can’t do that. So I’m not sure I get any extra credit or little stars or gold smiley faces because there are so many other families who have been extremely harmed by our health care system, by hospitals like Seattle Children’s, but not Seattle Children’s alone. And families who have no choice, no choice to make, and think about that.

There are families that come from four or five different states bringing their children to the one place in this sort of northwest corner pocket of the continental United States for care, for specialty care. And they know they’re going to have to leave their dignity a little bit at the door, sacrifice their sense of agency over themselves and over their loved ones. Perhaps know that they’re going to be treated differently, and they just have to brace for that and walk into those spaces and hope, hope that somewhere in the mix, they’re going to get some technically highly quality, high quality care, but that they’re going to give something really dear, like dignity, in that space.

And we can talk about death rates and we can talk about how many things happen three times more often in a negative way for communities of color in our health care system. We can talk about those outcomes and impacts. But I hope we also talk about the loss of dignity and being treated as if you were less than in the endeavor of seeking care. I just wonder how we need to account for that in a different way than we have been up to now.

So there’s that. But you asked me about mentors and the person I would fall back to most around this is a nurse practitioner whose name was Liz Thomas. She was the first African-American to graduate from the University of Washington’s Advanced Practice Program, and she dedicated her life to serving kids and families in the Central District.

And she showed up every day, and she did that. When I started at the clinic, I thought I was like some super smart, cool doctor, clean white coat. Thought I had to have every answer to every question. And after about a week, she grabbed me and straightened me out and started teaching me about what it really meant to be part of community first and maybe a supportive part of the wellness of the families around you in that particular role.

NICHOLE:

Well, thanks for bringing her into the room. I feel like I feel like I know her from the stories you’ve shared. What have you learned about yourself in this last year?

BEN:

I have noticed in this past year just how much people show up for each other during hard times. I think we’ve seen layers and amplitudes of that in different ways because this has been such a hard couple of years for everybody, and I’ve noticed just how much when it really becomes important. People who are already suffering, and sometimes even willing to set aside a little bit of their own pain and help out someone else in pain.

And I think that’s been an amazing story in this country. I don’t know if there are ways for us to think about that, and not necessarily forget or negate the incredible amount of trauma, especially to low-income communities and Black and Brown communities, but also lift up the idea that we still know and see each other. And I’ve experienced people seeing the need to support not, I think, not me so much, but the idea that health care justice is something that is local and is part of the space that we want our world to embody in much more realistic and powerful and beautiful in bountiful ways. And that’s been really, really inspiring.

NICHOLE:

One of the things that I have noticed is – I would actually just call it a disturbing trend in the nonprofit sector, but also in larger institutions like government and even philanthropy – that when racist practices or unjust institutional behaviors are uncovered, it’s often the very same people who were in leadership when the injustice or the act of racism occurred, are then charged to go and solve it, or fix it, or design a solution, even though they were the very person with the most power when it happened.

And I think the thing that is most challenging for me is, first of all, I’m just not quite sure how it makes sense. But it’s also that we’ve normalized that as a behavior in a way to solve for injustice. And I would just love to hear from you your perspective on how we might do things differently. What are other choices than that, that really lead to the change in accountability that communities have actually been demanding for decades?

BEN:

A long time. Boy, you sure said something, and I think that’s such a powerful… not even an insight, because it’s right in front of us, right? Entitlement and privilege go all the way to the point that suddenly the folks who cause the most harm are just entitled to be sort of at the helm in working towards trying to create something different.

And I just wonder why we assume that privilege and endow that privilege on folks who have been very much the focus of causing harm for so long. It’s incredible, the number of people who protect a white male CEO – I’ll to say it that way – is unbelievable to me. And it’s not just other white males, right? It’s board chairs, it’s folks in different layers of leadership and organizations. The way that we just, I think, assume and lift up that the person who’s been at the mantle of leadership gets to stay in leadership during the course of trying to do some correction. It’s just… Why do we assume that? I just don’t quite understand that.

NICHOLE:

Yeah.

BEN:

Well, you make me think about it from a perspective of doing something differently. It’s really a lot more about this concept around targeted universalism. I really think that that’s a big idea in really powerful way. I think about targeted universalism is really this approach where you focus most directly on those most disenfranchised, those most negatively impacted, those most left out. And the solutions that they lift up, that they name are the solutions, that you activate to create change.

And when that change happens, I think it’s beautiful that it actually benefits almost everybody around them, regardless of position, identity, or anything else. But it’s also just right. It’s just justice and the concept could be carried over into this, right?

We’re thinking about an organization or institution where the most privileged have been doing the most harm, and then lifting up the solutions coming from those who’ve been most negatively impacted and having them lead the change. And anyone who’s not willing to allow them to lead the change needs to get out of the way, needs to go away and needs to just – they can be on the sidelines, but they cannot be in their positions and continue to drive the work.

And I think there are ways for us to make that part of all of our work.

NICHOLE:

Yeah. Well, I kind of wanted to follow up and you know, we aspire at Group Health Foundation every day to proactively be part of an anti-racist movement.

We often don’t get it right and we’re learning all the time. What’s most important to me and to us is that they’re not just words – that we’re actually making choices, decisions, and actions that manifest that reality. And you’re so involved in so many different organizations that I would just love to hear some examples of organizations and leaders and work that you’re seeing that really embodies the actions and the day-to-day choices to manifest reorganizing our society to be much more equitable.

BEN:

One of the biggest questions I’ve asked myself in this past year has been something along the lines of, “why, when everyone agrees that something is being done wrong, is it still so hard to change our approach and our behavior?”

It’s really part of the deeper inspiration for this AHSHAY work that you introduced earlier. We all know that something is being done wrong, is harmful, has no redeeming qualities. And even in that extreme case where there’s no argument for its benefit, we actually struggle as a society to do something different.

So I think that understanding that is a really important thing. I think a little bit about, well of course for all of us, the lessons of Star Wars, and I think the incredible things that Yoda used to say. But one of them is “there is no trying, there’s just doing.” But the other one that’s really important to me is “in order to learn, you must first unlearn.” And I really tried to source that out, I thought maybe it was someone else like, you know, some Zen Master. But as far as I can tell, that was Yoda.

And the idea behind that is really powerful. That you don’t get to just jump in transition from centuries of work that’s been built into doing things a certain way and all that you’ve absorbed and embodied and taken in. Even as an activist, as a change agent, you’ve still taken in all of this stuff into your soul, into yourselves. So to ask us to suddenly do things better and different without first kind of practicing the practice of unlearning is a really interesting challenge. And so giving space for that is actually important.

NICHOLE:

Well, and I think about your work with AHSHAY and I think about the work to end youth incarceration and, you know, the field that I come from, we love to start every sentence with “and the evidence shows…” and, you know, throwing around evidence based practice. And I actually can’t think of a very many examples that are as good as youth incarceration, where we actually have mountains and mountains and mountains of evidence that the way that we do it, not only is it ineffective, it’s incredibly harmful.

And so I just would love to hear about, you know, the center that you’re building, a little bit more about your hopes and aspirations, and kind of how do you navigate that ability for us to blatantly ignore the data, the science, the voice of community?

BEN:

I do think there’s something in a sort of Audre Lorde-ish master’s tools kind of thing for us to really interrogate, even about the idea of evidence, right?

Because what I’ve watched is that evidence, like equity work today, is actually a very powerful tool to make sure that equity doesn’t happen. Equity is a great anti-equity tool. Similarly, evidence and this whole like that whole phrase, “evidence-based practice,” is a perfect way to continue to do things that have no evidence. Right? They actually reaffirm and established the status quo and then kind of do a little smudging and nudging. From what I’ve seen about the carceral system, both for youth and adults, is despite the amount of evidence. There’s actually been this adoption of the idea of evidence-based practices and all that it’s done has actually deepened the racism. Has actually deepened the disparity, because the basis, the middle word for evidence-based practices is so steeped in racism that you just guarantee that you’re just going to get better and better and better at applying racist practices to systems.

And you see changes, you see numbers change like overall numbers of something bad goes down a little bit, but it becomes more racist.

I think that’s a real challenge. I think with AHSHAY, this is really building on work that everyone else has been doing for a very long time, that lots of people, in community especially, in very thoughtful spaces and places, have been trying to do for a long time.

And creating a center is really more about trying to capture a moment, trying to amplify a lot of people’s good work, and also trying to use that very, very downstream bad event of youth incarceration to look upstream, to look at the deepest roots there, to really think about what that means for the earliest moments of our educational system, what that means for the ways in which communities are intentionally rent apart by the toxic kinds of forms of capitalism that we see in the worst forms of oppression and racism.

I mean, we think about our communities like the Central District and how that was a community of necessity based on redlining so long ago, maybe at the turn of the 1900s and how that was turned into, despite that, a Black community could make this amazing, thriving, beautiful community and full of jazz and music. You know, Quincy Jones and all of these wonderful artists and musicians full of thought leaders, full of activist leaders. It was the second center in the United States to start with the Black Panthers organization full of all of this strength.

And it almost feels like the rapidity with which Tulsa was burned to the ground was imposed upon the Central District over a longer period of time by gentrification and displacement and how powerful that is.

NICHOLE:

Well, I’m going to switch gears. Which is hard to do because I’m really held by that visualization in reference to Tulsa and the Central District. Um, so you’ve been on the Group Health Foundation board for four or five years now? And you have had the chance to meet grantees from every corner and pocket of this state. And before the pandemic, we actually got to go on some great trips together.

We went to Tri-Cities, we went out to Makah and Neah Bay. And what’s the thing that you have learned about communities in this state that has been the most surprising to you or disrupted a notion you had about maybe a geography or a place in our state? Like what’s been surprising and edge of growth for you?

BEN:

Well, partly what I appreciate about Group Health Foundation and maybe specifically about you is that the beginning of the work that you were doing was really about visiting many, many communities yourself. Every, every county, whatever that accounts for and more importantly, so, so many communities.

These are the communities that are passed over so much of the time. These are the places that have some of the most incredible brilliance and abilities. And I don’t know just ideas that would benefit the rest of the world and often ignored.

And the way that looks in Washington state is, in some ways, the way this country looks. In my mind, the focus of energy and attention, sometimes in a few spaces. And then so many people feeling powerless right left out.

And rather than maybe succumb to the tyranny of time and urgency, that you are hearing all around you, rather than throwing some funds at the biggest players in the state because they said they deserved resources right away. You, in a way, paused and slowed down and took the time to actually be in community legitimately, and were invited back, which is the strongest sign that your presence is actually something that’s welcome and powerful.

NICHOLE:

Thank you, that means a lot. And I think you’re bringing up this tension, that’s a false tension where we’re kind of constantly confronted with this idea that to be effective, you have to be efficient and equity is nice to have, but we have to be effective and efficient.

And I think that the truth and the lesson that we keep learning over and over again from community is that there is no effectiveness and there is no efficiency without listening and having a really equitable approach. So thanks for bringing that into the room.

BEN:

And I do want to say like, OK, on the list of just like cool moments. I mentioned Hilltop in Tacoma and this idea, this dismantling of the idea of just growth by growth’s nature has to be the right thing to do.

Visiting with an organization that I don’t need to name them, but just know that they are deeply connected, Black led, Black supporting, Black orienting organization in a community. And one of the board members asked this question in the gathering, sort of “where do you see yourself in five years or ten years? What do you hope?” And there was a real question about like growth and expansion, and the straight up and quick answer was “doing this right here, doing exactly what we’re doing.”

The idea of unlearning the concept of the growth and more is better automatically. What a special moment and something I think is worth remembering forever. Walking through Pasco and seeing ways in which it felt like community was really reestablishing a connection to what it meant to build community.

I mean, from infrastructure-building, by building business by business up. We need to go to Pasco and learn from them about how rebuilding this country in a post-pandemic world needs to really look.

NICHOLE:

I’m going to ask you a question about board service. So you’ve been on a ton of different boards, and I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m a big believer that organizations should have boards that are reflective of and center the people they serve and more importantly, be reflective of the communities they should be accountable to.

And because of that, I have spent a lot of time asking nonprofit boards to both become more reflective, and a lot of time recruiting the millions of amazing leaders we have in this state to serve on boards – and I haven’t recruited a million, but that’s in my horizons. And when I’ve done that, I’ve had a lot of folks come back and say, like they experienced tokenism or they felt invisible-ized or they got invited to serve on the board and then they felt silenced.

And I don’t know that as a state and as a nonprofit sector, we have figured out yet how to equip people to be agents of change and to really successfully advance equity in the board room. And it’s actually unfair to put that responsibility on those folks.

But you’ve been on a lot of boards and you have probably been the one and only on a lot of boards. And so how do you do it? Like, I’ve seen you be incredibly successful at transforming boards, asking hard questions about equity, like what are some of your secret tools that the rest of us can benefit from? They don’t have to be secrets.

BEN:

You’re being way too kind about board participation. I’ve been on many boards. There have been many times when I felt pretty invisible or alone and where the values that keep talking about, you know, “have you donated enough” versus “is the work really going in the meaningful direction and kind of things.

I think that you made me think about two things very, very powerfully in that space where you were asking that question. One was a conversation we had almost in the initial time that we were getting to know each other, and you were calling out the fallacy of not enough talented BIPOC folks out there. And just how much you were very actively kind of breaking that falsehood and taking that down and almost by your own actions of staff recruitment and other things, just kind of waving it in people’s faces that if you’re going to just quit because you think there aren’t qualified folks out there, it’s not because there aren’t qualified folks out there. It’s because you’re looking for a reason to quit trying.

And so that was really an important – it’s so important to hear that and see that. That makes other folks, other organizations, other boards work harder to really reach a different, a different outcome, and I think that’s powerful. I think the boards are steeped, they are built on the same constructions that were meant to oppress a lot of people. They were meant to hoard power for decision making and create spaces that are really rarefied, either by locked doors or by language that is inscrutable. And procedures and processes that you have to be expert at in order to navigate.

And I think there’s a lot of work for us to continue to do to kind of extricate, to find opportunities, to deconstruct some of those elitist kinds of approaches. I think that’s important work. I am really concerned about the exceptionalism approach that we’ve had, to putting one or two people on boards or in other spaces as well.

NICHOLE:

Yeah.

BEN:

Another thing I’ve been thinking about that is much more a reflection of Black and Brown community and anything else. I’m thinking a lot about the story of Ruby Bridges because I have lifted that story up so many times in my mind and in my talks and presentations and examples. I’m picturing in my head right now, the painting done by Norman Rockwell of Ruby walking, there’s like a tomato splattered on the wall behind her, and there’s four people – you can’t even see them because they’re grown up, so they’re bigger than the frame of the painting. Do you know which one I’m talking about?

NICHOLE:

Mm-Hmm.

BEN:

Thought about all of that, and all these words that used to come into my head about courage and dedication. I think about that picture differently these days. And I’m embarrassed a little bit about the way I’ve looked at that.

I think about what it means to be asking maybe our youngest people to be directly placed in harm’s way as a way to create change in this country. Are we really a country of cowards in that deep way that we must only move once we see the most fragile and youngest of us making a move?
I believe in youth power, but I also really, really think that that imagery is painful. I think about these sole, the oneness of her walking in that picture, in that frame and in the photographs that you might see of Ruby Bridges, the oneness, this one person doing this all by herself.

No one else, extracted from a community where she is known and has belonging and placed into this space that is completely alien. And it’s important to really think like when Ruby Bridges walked into that school, she spent the first year not actually knowing that there were any other students in that school.

All of the other students, the white students, continue their classes completely separate from her. Her only relationship was to a teacher as she went into a classroom every day by herself. How is that integrating a school? How is that a benefit to this one exceptional person who is placed by themselves in a space and then asked them to figure out how to learn?

I think about the image itself of her walking towards the school, but not even being in the school or exiting school or walking towards the school. So the accomplishment is that you can sort of go towards something that’s sort of incrementalism is our value system, rather than hordes of students like her being in a school fully integrated with a lot of other people.

This concept of exceptionalism is so woven into our stories. Even the ones that we lift up, the ones that we say are wonderful, the stories that we want to tell our grandkids about what it means to be cool and courageous and break down barriers and stuff like that.

NICHOLE:

Well, I want to thank you for your time and thank you for that beautiful example and thank you for the reminder, because it’s so easy to fall into the trap of exceptionalism, especially in the field of philanthropy. So I’ll be taking that gift with me.