On Saving Our Lives by Protecting Our Environment: An Interview with Doris Browne

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Doris Browne, MD, MPH, president and CEO of Browne and Associates, LLC (BAI), a Washington, D.C.-based service-disabled veteran, woman-owned, small business specializing in improving quality health outcomes through increasing awareness and inspiring behavior changes. She is a retired Colonel of the U.S. Army Medical Corps; retired from NIH, National Cancer Institute where she managed the Breast Cancer portfolio; was a Woodrow Wilson Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center; and the 118th president of the National Medical Association, the largest and oldest national organization representing African American physicians and their patients in the United States. 

Doris it is so great to meet you!   How did you become a doctor?

I grew up in a family with several siblings in the healthcare field (nursing, medical technology, and mental health services) and I decided that I should become a pharmacist or doctor and we could open a family clinic.  When I was accepted into medical school, I accepted the Health Professions Scholarship and joined the Army, serving for 27 years.

You are a medical doctor, but your interests now lie in helping others address climate change.  How do you make that connection?

I have a master’s degree in public health and I work in public health globally.  As a medical doctor, it is easy to see the impact of climate change, which includes the impact on air and water quality and the negative effect on the public’s health.  This is particularly true for communities of color.

A large percentage of our people live near facilities that have contaminants in the air or water, which results in respiratory illnesses, especially in our children. Cancers and asthma, among other conditions, are also linked to pollutants.  As an oncologist by training, and head of the National Medical Association, I had to address these concerns and the devastating impact of climate change on the health of our communities. 

I think Black women are worried about climate change, but there is also so much else that is right in front of us, like low wages and failing schools, that it can feel hard to focus on climate.  How do we change that?  

People haven’t connected the dots between climate change and our everyday lives. But I think that is starting to change.  Folks think, gee, it’s been over 90 degrees for five days in a row. The temperature is so high at times that we can’t keep schools open.  We have flooding and tornados in new places. People can’t go to work because their health and welfare are at stake. It’s all connected.

We see that glaciers are melting and we witness hurricanes of incredible magnitude. Hurricane Katrina was a category 5 storm.  Dorian may have been a category 7. But we don’t know its actual strength because the scales only go to 5! We have devastating forest fires on the West Coast.  The Amazon was on fire. What is going on?  

I hear you.  What should we do about it right now?

On a personal level, we must ask, “What am I doing individually that has a negative impact on the environment?”  

I’d like to see us turn off the TV and the lights when we are not using them and unplug devices, including chargers and computers.  This conserves energy. We can also step back from plastic. Use paper instead. If you have to use plastic, use larger plastic containers and recycle them.  And refill and reuse your water bottles.  

At a community level, we have to vote.  We have to put people into office that will advocate for change at the local and federal level.  We have to vote for people that will advocate for a cleaner, healthier environment.  

The current administration is actually relaxing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards; it’s untenable.  This is going to have a negative impact on our community. We must push them to establish and create policies to keep strong standards.  

People can also learn about federal legislation like The Clean Air Act, which regulates greenhouse gasses that are put into the air by refineries and power plants.  Greenhouse gasses are linked to respiratory illnesses, skin diseases, and cancers.  

We can learn about the 100% Clean Energy Economy Act, which will be introduced during this Congressional session.  Introduced by U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin (Virginia), Rep. Bobby Rush (Illinois) and others, the bill will transition the United States to a 100% clean energy economy by 2050 and require net-zero carbon pollution.  McEachin has secured over 100 co-signers.  In addition to protecting public health, it will create more clean energy jobs that drive our economy.  If passed, we could rehab buildings with lead pipes and improve the infrastructure in schools and other facilities.  

I love that there is a way to clean up our environment and create jobs.  That seems like the Holy Grail. How do you stay energized in the face of the enormity of climate change?

I have a positive attitude.  That’s my approach to life in general.  Also, I look at my foremothers. Harriett Tubman didn’t flinch in the face of enslavement.  She tried and succeeded in making a difference.  Congresswoman Barbara Jordan was stalwart in her role in protecting our democracy when she served in Congress.  Shirley Chisholm is also a shero.

I also admired my mother.  She lived through the ravages of Hurricane Camille.  At the time, it was the worst storm we had ever seen in the South.  She also survived Hurricane Katrina. It broke the levees in Louisiana, but the eye of the storm went through Mississippi.  At 95, my mother almost drowned in Katrina. She had never learned to swim and we had to put her in a chair on top of a table as the waters rose.  The water reached her chin. Finally, the water started to recede. She was very, very lucky.  

Wow.  That is an incredible story.  

She was a strong woman and lived to be 103.

Is there anything else you want BlackHer readers to know about you or your work?

Black women and men are disproportionately impacted by most of the major diseases.  We have to bring about health equity and we have to do it in a collaborative manner.   We can’t continue to work in silos. We must address the social determinants of health.  We, as a people, must work together to take action. And we can’t wait for the administration to give us a handout.  We have to look and say, “What can I do myself and how can I join with others now?” 

Let me ask you the miracle question.  You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and it’s November 2020 and a miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

We are exercising more, we don’t smoke, we are teaching our children to not vape.  Our mental health is positive. We’re thankful for the blue sky and the sunny days.  We are also taking time for ourselves and saying hello to our neighbors. We have truly put prevention into practice and we have a healthy, clean environment. Our physical and mental health has improved.





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