Dr. Shaquita Bell can’t get over all the art. She’s walking through the new Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Othello on Wednesday, explaining how the Seattle Children’s site will integrate different elements of care when its first patients arrive on Monday. But the walls keep stopping her. In a lobby corridor, Louis Chinn’s Giving Hands greets visitors palms-up. In the community kitchen, Angie Hinojos’s vibrant Generations has more hues than a produce aisle. In the dental office, Blanca Santander’s turtles draw eyes to the ceiling. There’s so much art that Santander can’t even find one of her pieces during a separate walk-through. All told, more than 40 works by 20-plus artists canvas the centerpiece of the 3.2-acre Othello Center development.
Bell sounds like a curator as she describes them. But what animates her work, and the clinic’s, is not a spirit of pickiness but of broad acceptance. With a gym, nutritionists, social workers, MDs, and behavioral health experts all under one roof, the doctor has marshaled a big-tent approach to treatment at a moment when her institution has faced questions about exclusion.
In 1970, when the original Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic opened in the Central District, it aimed to address the root causes of pediatric inequities in the heart of Black Seattle. But in recent years, three-quarters of the families Odessa Brown serves have moved south as rent and home prices have risen in the neighborhood. In 2019, Seattle Children’s broke ground on a second clinic closer to many of its patients, just off the Othello light rail station.
Yet, as construction continued, the institution’s commitment to equity was put under the microscope. In late 2020, Odessa Brown medical director Dr. Ben Danielson resigned, citing racism at Seattle Children’s. An uproar ensued; Seattle Children’s tapped former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder to lead an investigation into Danielson’s allegations but, initially, didn’t release its findings, stoking more outrage.
Seattle Children’s eventually published a summary of the report, which said it “did not adequately investigate or address a 2009 allegation that Dr. Jim Hendricks referred to Dr. Ben Danielson using a racist epithet.” It also found “significant racial disparities” in hospital security calls, insufficient interpretation and translation services, and “misalignment around OBCC operations,” including with the Othello development.
The investigation’s recommendations informed a Health Equity and Anti-Racism Action Plan in September of 2021 that Bell, Danielson’s replacement, helped steer. Leaning on data and generalities, it wasn’t very well-received.
For Bell, the controversy was difficult to navigate. “As a Black and Indigenous woman who leads this clinic, who is surrounded by other Black and Indigenous people, it is hard to hear that feedback when it's like, well, we are part of the community,” she says.
At the same time, Bell has kept “99 percent” of her attention on a site that blends elements of a hospital, dental office, and community center. A quarterly update to the action plan highlights the $37.5 million in operational funds and $125 million endowment set aside for the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, with a $52 million investment in the Othello location. Bell says she’s had “carte blanche” with the space. “It feels like Othello was this way for us to come together and rebuild our relationship and, and repair things over the last year, and also take words in strategic plans and action plans and put them to work. As a doctor, that’s what I want to do. I don’t want to sit in a [meeting] and talk about strategic plans...but I love to be able to see a kid and bring in social work, or bring in nutrition, and have all of those resources in the same space.”
The 42,000-square-foot clinic is a testament to this untraditional approach. Near the entrance, the Lenny Wilkens Recreation Center, with a basketball hoop and film projector, offers ample room for kids to learn how to walk or run again after injury. Next door, a fully equipped kitchen means the clinic doesn’t have to lean on mobile hot plates for cooking classes anymore. And upstairs, families waiting for medical or behavioral health rooms, or other services, can sit in a bright, open area akin to a library. Clinic leaders call it a town square, complete with iPads, a lactation area, and other resources to put visitors at ease. “We’re not going to tell people where to wait,” says Bell.
The idea is to treat different parts of the mind and body in one place; a visit to a physical therapy facility on the second floor might end at the dentist’s downstairs.
It’s also to invite the surrounding community in to that building. Movie nights might be held in the gym downstairs, and locals will be able to reserve the kitchen for free.
Bell has spread the word at vaccination events and through the clinic’s work at local schools. She’s sought input from the Somali Health Board and others in the area throughout the process, informing everything from language—rooms are labeled in English, Spanish, and Somali—to the diverse group of artists whose works brighten the building, to equipment needed to detect and treat sickle cell disease. “A board or a CEO is not necessarily the expert of what is needed on Othello and MLK, but the people who live here are the experts.”
The new branch of Odessa Brown pays homage to its other location, which is slated for a renovation, through art. A portrait of Dr. Blanche Lavizzo, Washington’s first Black female pediatrician and the clinic’s first medical director, hangs near a waiting area. And the late Odessa Brown herself is one of the figures captured in photographic form on a nearby wall.
The community organizer, who died of leukemia a year before the clinic opened, tirelessly advocated for equity in health care after facing discrimination in those settings herself. For Antwanette Lyons, the clinic’s community health advocacy manger, Brown is one of the building’s “sheroes.” They laid the foundation that, after a tumultuous couple of years, Seattle Children’s can get back to building on. “You can read a report, and people will tell you all the great things,” says Lyons, “but I feel like this is the demonstration.”