CAUSE and Heinz speaker series: Dr. Alondra Nelson

Deputy Director for Science and Society for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Dr. Alondra Nelson spoke as part of a speaker series hosted by the Center for Africanamerican Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE) and Heinz College last Friday. The speaker series has focused on racial disparities in American policing and healthcare systems, and Nelson spoke about the overlooked healthcare activism of the Black Panther Party (BPP).

Nelson began her lecture by drawing the audience’s attention to a fundamental question: why and how do communities that have been the objects of scientific scrutiny, technological surveillance, and medical apartheid become subjects and agents in science and medicine? She then transitioned to countering popular stereotypes about the Black Panthers, who are often portrayed as a militaristic and antagonistic organization, by showing documented examples of their healthcare initiatives and outreach projects. These included free breakfast programs for children and community survival conferences, during which the organizers would distribute free food and sickle cell anemia tests. Nelson added that the testing run by the BPP for sickle cell anemia was one of the first examples of a large-scale genetics counseling and screening program in the United States.

After this general overview, Nelson dived into the bulk of her talk by discussing what motivated the BPP to develop their health activism frameworks. She focused on three different motivations: personal experiences, historical antecedents, and political and ideological influences.

Nelson walked the audience through the many challenges that Black people faced in trying to obtain healthcare during the latter half of the 20th century. As a result of Jim Crow segregation, she said, access to clinics and hospitals was restricted, and so was access to relevant medical and scientific knowledge. Compounded with the brutalities that Black people suffered during civil rights protests, such as those at Birmingham and Selma, there was a need for a self-reliant healthcare system. To underscore this point, Nelson recounted the story of Huey P. Newton, a co-founder of the BPP, who was denied healthcare due to his lack of insurance information, which he did not have with him at the time. Instead of giving medical attention to an injured Black person, a nurse called a police officer over, turning the visit into a carceral encounter. Nelson stressed that experiences like these were instructive in that they showed the BPP (and the Black population in general) that if they wanted to get quality healthcare for themselves and those that they cared about, they would have to build their own system rather than depending on existing infrastructures.

Nelson also introduced the concept of the “long medical civil rights movement,” and how the civil rights movement has always contained a component of health activism as a necessity. Some examples of this include the Black Cross nurses, which was a cadre of Black female nurses who were barred from joining the Red Cross, and the activism of Fannie Lou Hamer, who had a hysterectomy performed on her without her consent by a white doctor. Nelson also talked about how doctors would assist the Black community during events like Freedom Summer. Nelson emphasized that even though we often think of the civil rights movement as a struggle for equality, it also contained clear and indisputable undertones of health activism that played a role in the BPP’s development of its activism initiatives

In discussing political and ideological influences, Nelson talked about the book The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon, which was required reading for members of the BPP. The book provided a deep psychiatric and psychological analysis into the conditions of those suffering from the dehumanizing effects of colonization, and it served as a template not only for the BPP but also for the Black community as a whole. Through the writings of authors like Fanon, the BPP inherited a core commitment to health activism.

Concluding these three sections of her talk, Nelson then brought the audience back to the BPP, discussing in greater detail the nature of the BPP’s health activism. She explained that the BPP’s initiatives came from being both an underserved and an overexposed population. In terms of being an underserved community, Nelson talked about how Black individuals had to rely on health aid from their communities and each other rather than the systems that were in place. As an example of this, Nelson showed that BPP chapters were each required to have an established clinic to serve those of the Black community and that these clinics were only to be staffed by qualified individuals. Nelson emphasized that these initiatives are relatively unknown today as a result of federal counterintelligence.

In terms of being an overexposed population, Nelson discussed how the BPP was always trying to anticipate advancements in medical technology that could be harmful to the Black community. One example of this was when the BPP, in collaboration with the NAACP, California’s Prisoner’s Union, and others, filed a legal complaint to stop the establishment of a center for the reduction of violence at UCLA, which would have used psychotherapy as a method of control over minorities who were deemed dangerous.

Nelson concluded her lecture by answering her initial question. Having shown throughout the lecture how members of targeted communities become subjects and agents in medicine and science, she finished by talking about some of the reasons why this was the case. Of the many reasons that exist, she focused on three: that the BPP had strict standards and only accepted help from experts who were well-equipped to work with disadvantaged groups; that the BPP was open-minded and adopted new scientific advancements; and that the BPP were conscientious about their self-representation to the world, and dictated the terms surrounding controversial topics of discussion.

After Nelson finished, the audience asked numerous questions, both on the contents of the talk and on her perspectives on society in general. One audience member asked about the legacy left behind by the BPP’s health activism, and what remained today. Nelson responded by pointing to community clinics founded by the BPP that are still open today, such as the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center, as well as the widespread health activism that happened after Hurricane Katrina. She remained optimistic that the spirit of health activism was still alive.

Another viewer asked about what lessons universities can take from the BPP’s health activism. Nelson responded that universities should be cognizant of the role that they play in the communities in which they are situated, especially those that are situated in underprivileged areas. More importantly, universities should have a dialogic relationship with those around them rather than a predatory one.

The last question was from Dr. Joe Trotter, one of the moderators, and he asked Nelson to talk more about the free breakfast program and activism through the context of food and food security. In response, Nelson admitted that food was certainly a component of health activism, and many protested for the right to have access to fresh and non-spoiled produce. She added, however, that there was certainly a lot more to learn about the food initiatives of the time and that there was definitely a story about the BPP through that lens.