Here’s part two of my conversation with health equity activist Danise Wilson. We pick back up after she shared her story and what drives her work in birth equity.
JK: I’m sorry you had to go through that. I know so many women, and a number of black women, who have had tragic and awful birth experiences. One of the things I’ve seen you do throughout the many years we’ve known each other is embody activism. I didn’t know you well in high school, but I remember you ran for class officer, right?
JK: I remembered this about you. You were always moving with an eye on the ball. So what keeps you going and what does self-care look like for you when you’ve been doing community care for this long?
DW: I think the thing that keeps me going is that I am still entrenched in the community. Again? seeing the need is hard to ignore. The other thing that keeps me going is getting to get a glimpse from a decision maker standpoint and to understanding just how difficult it is to untwine those knots in the system. I know that navigating hardships get easier once you receive a certain level of privilege. Being invited into spaces, having different titles, affords me access. I know who and where to send an email to get the outcome I would like. It saddens me that most people can’t do that. When Sydney has a problem in school, she has a mom that can take off of work, go to the school, sit in the office for an hour and a half and handle whatever needs to be handled. Other parents don’t have that flexibility and time. So I show up for those who can’t and try to change things for those who need it. I know how I would want people to treat my mom, my children or family if I wasn’t around. I shouldn’t need a title or any notoriety to have these basic needs met. Unfortunately we do.
Being able to see both sides keeps me going, but personally that has burnt me out at times. You can’t catch all the rain. I take this work so personally, I try to catch the rain. Rain that falls at work in the community, nationally. I’m compelled to. During the protests (after the murder of George Floyd in 2020), my husband had to come and get me. I need that stop point.
JK: It’s good that you have a partner that holds it down like that. I’ve got one of those now. He’s like, call me if you get arrested, otherwise I’m here taking care of the kids.
DW (laughs): Right, that’s what we need! That’s how I keep going. And I guess there’s this little optimistic piece of me that says, you may not be able to change it all, but if you can change a piece, it will ripple out.
JK: I was talking with Heidi Romer a few months ago for this blog; I know you know Heidi, and we were talking about how you can’t have thriving communities when they aren’t even surviving because they are actively suffering. And in Buffalo, especially for our Black and Brown communities, many people are suffering at the hands of the system, of our local government and our state government who are not doing enough. There has been so much trauma, so much tragedy, and this assumption that there is a well of resilience that people can keep pulling from. And it’s the same systems-change needed that community activists and nonprofit leaders have been talking about now for 10, 15, 20, even 30 years. I’m always interested in hearing from those people that are knee deep in it, how do you stay in it this long?
DW: I tell anyone who comes to ENAHEC looking for a job, you can come for the experience, you can come for the money, but this work has to come from here (points to her heart) or you will be miserable. This heart work keeps you up at night, makes you not be able to enjoy a shower because your wheels are turning, interrupts vacations ... is that healthy though? Should we learn to create more boundaries for ourselves? Absolutely. But it’s almost as if you can’t help it. And even you, I’m looking at your transition into the work you are doing now, you’re still helping, just in a different capacity.
JK: Right, there are so many leaders I know transitioning out of local nonprofits right now because we all got burnt out. I think the current way that nonprofits are operating, at least in the City of Buffalo, and probably across the country… it’s not sustainable. And it’s mostly women, and a lot of Women of Color, leading these organizations. And it’s not sustainable for any of us. So that was part of my decision. How can I continue to work with the organizations I care about but in a different way? Last question I have, are you still running your scholarship program and if so, can you tell me a little bit about that?
DW: Yes! So the Hamilton-Wilson scholarship is still going! That was created for MPH and MSW students of color attending UB because there are few and far in between. We are trying to support them throughout their journey and getting through those masters programs. We were very fortunate to get a pretty big donation come in but we have much more work to do. Since we’ve started, we’ve given over 8 scholarships. Each student getting $1,000 and we still have money in the bank. Greer Hamilton, my counterpart, just went through her PhD program so we are riding out the savings while she is finishing school. Our dream is yo one day have an endowment where it's constantly growing and to grow a substantial donor base. Actually, one of my biggest personal goals is That one day I will become a funder to non profits. I’m going to make sure they have money for capacity, time and flexibility!
JK: I know you are going to give out that operating money that no one else gives out but everybody needs!
DW: Listen! It’s crazy how these funders work. But I’ve been working on that too. I’ve been trying to work with the funders, especially our local foundations, to say hello, you guys are doing this wrong.
JK: One of the things I hope my children see, from the ways we’ve raised money for the
community through my daughter’s annual lemonade stand to benefit the Mercy NICU or through the memorial fund we’ve given out in their dad’s name, is that they can do this too. Because we come from a working class background where we didn’t have those models. My parents gave money to church but money to nonprofits and grants? That was seen as a thing only for wealthy people. So I wanted them to be able to see that you can actually impact your community by giving even a small amount of money to a nonprofit. Because for small nonprofits, they will make that money go a long way. I want to show them how we can crowdfund to do that and still do good work. I’m sure when you set out to start a scholarship fund, people asked how you were going to really do that. I know when we started Mark’s fund, everyone was like, you’ll be lucky to raise $400. And we raised $4,000 and sent ten kids to camp that first summer. It wasn’t that hard because we had a community that believed in us.
JK: I just wanted to end there because it’s another amazing way you’ve been lifting community as you go. Thank you for the impact you are making. You’ve been such a blessing to the community and I wish you all the best as you move into your new role.