Remarks of Sylvia Drew Ivie, on the occasion of the Women Who Dared Awards of the California Black Women's Health Project, June 15, 2006, City Club, Los Angeles, CA
Madam Chair, distinguished members of the California Black Women's Health Project Board of Directors, Crystal Crawford, fellow honorees, honored guests. Thank you for this warm moment of inclusion in your annual celebration. I'm grateful for the opportunity this morning to break bread with such an outstanding group of pioneers and pathfinders. I want to speak with you briefly this morning not about my life as a public interest lawyer, or the trials and tribulations of administering my beloved THE Clinic or even more recently the continuing frustrations of trying, with the courageous support of the California Endowment, to make the fight fair in improving care in the King/Drew Medical Complex. You know those issues; you are all part of these or similar struggles in your own endeavors.
Rather, I want to share with you my thoughts and experiences around a more personal issue, one which has become increasingly important to me, a search for how to best value my own physical self, and in doing so, honor my own innate dignity.
Dignity was always a special value in the African American community because those who opposed our interests always wanted to take it away from us. As a child I grew up with it as a touchstone, not the word dignity, but the behaviors that went with it. My parents stood for it, so we as children inherited that critical value. Let me give you an illustration. I remember my mother once took us on a road trip between Washington D.C and Philadelphia Pa. We were four active, rambunctious children, and there was never a time in my memory that we were not in search of something good to eat. We stopped, just outside Delaware at an broken down, orange-colored A&W Root beer stand, walked inside, sat on the stools and our mother ordered hamburgers, fries and cokes for all . The waitress soon brought the order but it was all wrapped and bagged. My mother said, "Thank you for wrapping this, but we will eat here." The waitress said firmly, "No, you can not eat inside the restaurant but you are welcome to pay for the food as carryout." With no further exchange, my mother stood, quietly closed her open purse and said, "Come children, we won't be eating here today". Now you can imagine OUR dismay. Please, just give us the food, never mind whether we ate inside or in the car. But there was something in my mother's eye that said don't say one word, not one, and we quietly walked out, drove away and did not stop again until we reached the home of our relatives in Philly. That event with my mother created a lasting vision of self control, self respect and dignity.
My father, Charles Drew had the same sense of what dignity required, especially in the context of care for patients in the Washington DC public hospital where he worked. Dr. La Salle Leffall, a surgical student of my father's at Howard University recalls in his recently published autobiography No Boundaries a situation in which a poor, disheveled and unclean smelling poor patient was admitted with a diagnosis of possible intestinal obstruction. In addition to routine laboratory work, the admitting resident ordered abdominal x-rays. A few hours later, my father was making afternoon rounds with a group of students, interns, and residents and asked to see the films. The resident informed him that they were still waiting for the transportation service to take the patient to the Radiology Department.
Hearing this, my father, who was always meticulously attired in a starched white coat, reached into the bed and gathered the patient in his arms. Clutching the patient to his chest, he lifted him onto the gurney and wheeled him to the Radiology Suite as his students watched in stunned silence. By the time the students and young doctors collected their wits, the patient was getting the needed x-rays. He apparently never took the residents to task; he didn't have to. His example taught them better than any lecture that they had neglected the patient's needs and thus had violated his human dignity .
In my own life I have struggled, surely in less heroic dimensions, but struggled none- the- less with an issue of personal dignity having to do about my appearance. Now, some of you may leap to my ever-present difficulties in creating a definitive hair style. That is another issue, for another day. Today I am talking about what in the world to do about my weight.
I was born 62 years ago weighing 10 and a half pounds, so believe me when I say this has been an issue for some time. When I tell you I wanted those hamburgers when I was a child riding on a trip with my mother, I wanted those hamburgers!
But something happened to me in 1998 that changed my thinking about my weight. That something was a visit from a friend from South Africa named Rose Mazabuko. Rose had been an integral part of the struggle against Apartheid. She was awarded the Kaiser Family Foundation Nelson Mandela Award for her work there. She traveled to the United States in connection with that honor, and I was fortunate enough to be asked to host her stay in Los Angeles.
During her visit to my home she shared with me the story of how she had helped women in small villages to grow community gardens when they did not have money or enough to eat. She took into the villages shovels and a stick marked with the depth she wanted a trench to be dug. Then she instructed the women to bring our all of the empty tin cans in their homes to enrich the soil at the bottom of the trench. Then she asked if there were inactive children at home because of disabilities. She knew there were many. She asked that they all crawl out or be carried out to the place for the new garden. She gave the children the job of throwing all the tin cans into the hole, and collecting tin cans in the future to keep a compost heap going to fertilize the garden. They were then to help harvest the vegetables as they grew. When the garden creation was completed and had started to grow, Rose moved on to the next village and repeated the instructions.
When she finished telling this story sitting in my living room, Rose said, "Now Sylvia we must get up and go for a walk". So I got up, changed my work clothes putting on some bright pink, very large and very ugly Bermuda shorts and off we went. First Rose told me that I walked too slowly so I would have to walk twice a day or walk faster. Then she told me I needed to lose 50 kilos, which I found a hilarious and absurdly ambitious statement, though I had no clue exactly how many pounds a kilo represented. Third, she said I was never to wear those shorts again, and that I must dress nicely no matter what I was doing to show respect for myself and for my community.
After three weeks of walking and talking Rose returned home to South Africa. I have been walking and putting extra movement into my life every day since then. I have discovered that a kilo is 2.2 pounds, and no, I have not lost 50 of them, but I intend to keep walking and moving because Rose told me that is what I must do.
Just as Rose lovingly but sternly embraced all the members of the South African villages including giving meaningful work to children cast aside because of disability, she chastened me for not thinking about the dignity of my person, for myself and as a representative of my community. She instilled in me a sense of physical pride that had somehow gone missing. She made me feel that somehow I had wrongly thrown my own self away in working for the betterment of others.
Rose taught me that in our dress, our deportment, what and how we eat, we must carry ourselves in a way that reflects our sense of dignity as a people. Through Rose's intervention, my weight was transformed from a personal to a political issue, at the root level of my being, my own self. An elder of Great Spirit, Rose Mazabuko had brought a gift across the water to me, and it is a treasure I intend to honor and keep as a permanent part of my spirit.
In all that I continue to do in my work to build health in our communities, I will try to represent the best in me physically, spiritually and mentally and represent as I try, the best in all of us. I am more ready than ever to continue the fight.
Thank you my sisters here this morning for the love and the power and the self respect that we share today and that we will continue to share going forward until the last one of us rises, filled with the magnificent dignity and strength of our beloved forbearers, mentors, and friends. Amandla!